Convicts in a Comics Workshop

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A six-session Comics Workshop in a correctional facility was as much a learning experience for the instructor--dealing with the prison's security environment--as it was for the participating prisoners.
Mike Mosher

Issue #71, December 2004


The six-session March/April 2004 Comics Workshop I taught in the Saginaw Correctional Facility was instructive for all participants. It was certainly as much a learning experience for the instructor as it was for the prisoners, as I learned to get used to the prison procedure and sense of being in a security environment.

I had previously taught comics in California, several workshops for Silicon Valley grade-schoolers and teenagers at the Community School of Music & Art in Mountain View, and one for IBM computer scientists in their berm-concealed Almaden Research Center laboratory complex on a mountain south of San Jose. It is my conviction that comics are a major creative medium of the twentieth century, both shaped by and shaping new narrative expressive possibilities of combined image and text. It is certainly one in which most people have a general sense of its conventions. Sixty years ago many marginally talented artists entered the medium as a way to make a living. Today's comic artists, both corporate (for publishers Marvel, DC, newspaper syndicates) and independent (Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, small papers) are generally quite skilled and entered the field out of a love of craft.

Go to Jail I had worked in a correctional setting too, and painted five murals in San Francisco County Jail Number 2 visitors' area and inmates' gym, compensated not with cash but class credit while in graduate school. While the imagery was supportive of family, sketches of life behind bars, and a street scene (the Jail administration didn't like the sleeping wino), the project was highly politicized from the start. Activist Deputy Andrea Elukovich, who appeared in the 1982 anti-nuke march in full uniform, had initiated it. Five years later a change in administration meant obliteration of four of the five murals, leaving only the least controversial.

Saginaw Correctional Facility is an eleven-building facility on 43 acres in Freeland Michigan, with 1,490 male prisoners housed in level 1 (minimum) through level 4 (just below maximum) security areas. Designed in 1993 for 680 prisoners, they are now double bunked in cells originally designed for one. One officer estimated that 800 of these men lack a high school diploma or GED. All community volunteers and outsiders entering the prison are required to attend a three-hour workshop to learn the prison's rules and regulations. Some of my fellow attendees were there to give religious instruction, two burly and cheerful plainclothes nuns and a more dour evangelist preacher. Other volunteers run Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sessions.

For several years Saginaw Valley State University Professor Phyllis Hastings has been leading English Department faculty in teaching in the prison and helping university students run classes there. In 2003 she organized a Campus-Prison Committee at the university, and recently established a university office of Service Learning. Her publication Inside/Out has been funded by grants from the Saginaw Community Enrichment Foundation. This year she wrote the grant to cover remuneration and expenses for my comics workshop.

Prison publications have a long and contentious history, and like the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, have often aroused displeasure of the authorities. A Criminal Justice scholar shared with me some copies of The Angolite, the long-running publication of Angola Prison in Louisiana. In this publication I first learned of their rodeos and "prisoner poker", a gory contest where, as an angry bull charges and upsets the card players, the last man to remain seated at the card table wins. In the visual arts, University of Michigan professors Buzz Anderson (English Department) and Janie Paul (School of Art) run a Prison Arts Project, with annual exhibitions and auctions in Ann Arbor of prisoner artwork from facilities around the state. Several of the SCF workshop participants had exhibited in it.

To teach in a prison requires constant interface with its authority. All supplies and handouts need to be logged in, listing those that will be left with prisoners and those that will return with the instructor at the end of the evening. Only clear-barreled pens can be brought in and out of the facility without being logged at the front desk. Identification is left at the guard station, and once entered into the locked area, the search (pat down, mouth, shoes) proceeds. On my first walk across the yard, accompanied by a guard, I was surprised at how normal, even fashionable, the men's blue and orange jackets, pants and watch caps seemed. "You expected black and white stripes?" asked the guard. Not necessarily...but if I didn't know that this outfit was prison issue, and saw a man hitchhiking in Freeland, I would not necessarily know he was an escaped prisoner. There was no easel with paper as requested in my classroom, so one inmate left to get it from the guards. Then it was evident my voice could not be heard over a whirring fan behind the locked and gated area holding cleaning supplies. One inmate immediately scrunched himself beside it on the floor, reached in, grabbed a mop and maneuvered the handle to snap off the fan. I hope no one was written up and given a "ticket" for this infraction.

Twelve men had originally signed up for the workshop (three dozen men were on a waiting list for the class) and eight finished, in some cases because jobs opened up. One participant was a white man in his early twenties whom I'll call Genghis, for he had earrings, long moustache and goatee and his head shaved except for a ponytail like a soldier of Genghis Khan. Genghis launched into a discussion of contemporary comics as if to distinguish himself to me from the rest of the workshop. Another man the same age as many of my university students seemed to be a quiet farm boy, perhaps he had participated in a stupid, ill-planned robbery. This is my guess, for I didn't ask questions about their backgrounds or crimes. One jovial African-American family man said he signed up for the workshop so he could do little drawings for his children who sent their drawings to him. The next week he took a work detail, which presumably gives them some spending money or perhaps some time off their sentences, and dropped out of the class. I suspect that disruption is a constant ongoing theme in these men's lives.

Each evening the class was provided with photocopied example pages, including 18th century satirical British cartoons, the Yellow Kid (1896), 1950s science fiction, African-American and Mexican-American cartoonists, and work by contemporary masters Robert Crumb and Art Speigelman. Comics' students should have a sense of the history and scope of this medium. They were also given sketchbooks and two kinds of black pens, my favorite sharp marker and flowing black ink pen, though many men didn't like the pens. Some preferred to draw in difficult-to-print light pencil, creating meticulous, beautiful silvery work that was almost invisible. On that first evening we discussed three-part storytelling structure, some visual conventions like word and thought balloons, and various types of lettering. Their interest very much perked up when demonstration drawings began, for suddenly I had credibility. In their own drawings I noted many of the same problems suffered by my Beginning Drawing students in the university.

Behind bars authority is omnipresent. You can't go through any door until the guard is ready to let you. Did that guard in the booth unlock it? Did you hear it click or not? Though all staff was cordial or supportive or disinterestedly professional, I absorbed the tension of the incarceration situation. "Are you sure you want to do this?" asked my wife, aware of stress I was carrying in my shoulders. Yes, I did. In the second class we explored visual storytelling techniques, and discussed the comic in terms of cinematic frames and movie shots. I distributed work by Ho Che Anderson and some other black cartoonists featuring black characters. One man I'll call Eyes, for he had an intense stare that could peel paint, said that what he wanted from this class was instruction on how to draw an exaggerated face. "I can draw realistic, but how do you know what to leave out of a cartoon?" When the class drew self-portraits, some were very skilled in an iconic and tattoo-like style. "Show us how to draw beautiful women!" several asked, so I gave some demonstrations, which they heartily critiqued, as they followed along and endeavored to duplicate the invented figures in their own sketchbooks.

On the third night the inmates brought their own drawings from the week, which included a baseball team, "the four personalities in me" from one intense fellow, and women copied from porn magazines. A white man in his fifties, who I'll call the Lifer, created small, critical cartoons about the prison system, calling for peace and brotherhood, recounting facts about the enormity, cost and impact of the prison system on American society. Each class member was then asked to discuss what he liked about his drawing and what he didn't like. Some were frustrated by lack of skills, but they asked very specific questions to get the training they sought. I showed them some autobiographical comics, a popular genre in the past decade. When he saw Robert Crumb, the Lifer asked if this guy also drew the Furry Freak Brothers. I showed Lloyd Dangle's comic on growing up in Ann Arbor in the shadow of Detroit. I showed a few pages from the Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets, both for its graphic skill (excellent use of cinematic black and white) and its depiction of an ethnic neighborhood, and told them they might consider depicting their own neighborhoods with this scope and in this level of detail. This must have inspired them, for at the end of the evening they asked, "What's our homework?" "What exactly do you want from us next week?"

The fourth evening we spent some time on figure drawing skills, both naturalistic and exaggerated. The class of eight was asked to draw seven men in prison — look around you for your subjects! They turned their chairs so they could see each other and assiduously began to draw, comfortable drawing in class. Some added the instructor too, and as I drew the men drawing, I demonstrated on the easel the freedom to overlap, distort or flatten forms. I then sat back and watched the class draw. Eyes looked up, laughed and said "You look so mellow!" for apparently the tension had left me. It was a successful night by any measure, for I had a roomful of students focused upon their projects, drawing each other.

This evening they needed to hand in any artwork they wanted in the English Department's publication. A couple prisoners grumbled about things they'd submitted in the past that were deemed inappropriate, especially too sexy for publication. Though requested not to, some had added color, for not everybody was thinking yet in terms of art for black and white reproduction. A well-spoken black man I'll call Slick had submitted a cartoon about Detroit called "Alligator City" and asked me "Do you know why they call Detroit the Alligator City?" I answered correctly, that a lot of men there wore alligator shoes. "The greatest number of sales in the world!" Slick replied, and the men all began to discuss which brands were choice and which were without luster. Oddly enough, Slick drew the gator in his cartoon wearing athletic shoes, old school Adidas.

The following week Slick was busy with Mothers Day cards for fellow prisoners. He looked up from the seven floral cards he had in progress and asked about portfolios, and how artwork should be sent to publications. Many graphics students in the university also request portfolio preparation classes. Another inmate requested advice on graphic arts skills to learn when they got out into the world, so we discussed computer graphics and specific applications. After that we turned our attention to animal myths, totems and characters, and I asked them to draw each of themselves as animals with which they identified. They completed depictions of a mangy but loveable dog, a fire-breathing dragon, a proud lion and a menacing silverback gorilla defending his territory. I then distributed a couple pages from Art Spiegelman's Maus, which effectively uses "funny animals" representing Jews as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs, to tell a serious story. I explained its origin and emphasized how most of it was about imprisonment in the Third Reich's concentration camps. Eyes looked at it, let out a laugh and said, "Man, we should do a comic about this place!" Others immediately picked up on the idea; they started reeling off characters on the yards. One suggested they include characters like the Salesman — a guy at the prison who always had something to sell — and the "ass ponies" or homosexual prisoners. Genghis groused that the university's English Department publication wouldn't allow that level of frankness. I reminded them that it wasn't the only game in town, and that if they really put their energy into a quality comics they might even get it syndicated, perhaps to other prison publications.

During the sixth class one man said he found last week's animal allegories inspiring, and brought a family portrait with each member represented as animals, his mother as a wise owl and his nephew as a bear cub. An SVSU art student very interested in comics — and drawing and writing his own — accompanied me to this class. What university art students need is a community art context, where they can see an immediate impact and response to their efforts, and where they get the ego-boost as they discover they have expertise to offer and share. Organizing and driving neighborhood mural projects, teaching workshop in comics or skills in other expressive media, producing posters and flyers for community events — all these plug students into vital public functions as an artist in ways that commercial gallery shows do not.

As a final exercise we all did a "comics jam", where each artist works on a panel for three minutes then passes it on to the next guy. The results were rowdy, bawdy and funny. After getting them to take their work seriously, to put their egos into it, I now encouraged them to release control. Asked what the finished jamworks taught them, one said, "Under pressure you don't worry so much, you just draw!" They all thanked me, said I should teach it again though there were plenty of other inmates on the waiting list who'd get in the workshop before them. As the workshop wrapped up, the Lifer began to tell me his story of his conviction for vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk, and how they threw the book at him to make him an example because they wanted to show they could be tough on a white guy with money. "I fucked up big time, man!"

Walking back across the yard on the warm spring evening, men were taking a last stroll outdoors, or sitting at tables talking. One sat playing a guitar. At this moment the prison almost felt like a college. I enjoyed my last glimpse of the place for a while as the sun set over the coils of barbed wire atop the chain-link fence. Each evening ended with a sense of satisfaction, but I was very thankful each night that I was driving home.

In Jail

Why did I want to teach there? Do I identify with the prisoners? Despite white privilege, education and class advantages, for many years it was easier for me to imagine myself homeless or in prison than as a successful academic. I contemplate past intellectual and activist prisoners. Gramsci's prison notebooks were a leftist classic. The Michigan poet and White Panther Party activist John Sinclair made use of his prison time on a marijuana conviction for polemical writing. The muralist David Alfaro Siquieros, incarcerated in the 1960s for criticism of the Mexican government, painted small canvases of flowers in his cell. The assassination of the French revolutionary Marat while in prison was immortalized in J.L David's famous painting. The jingoistic radio personality G. Gordon Liddy, who claimed in his eccentric autobiography Will that he was the only man to serve prison time for the Nixon presidency's Watergate crimes, wrote vividly in that book of his incarceration. There, but for Art — the ability to distance oneself from one's feelings and express them in the mask of tragedy or comedy — would be I. If I didn't have art (and later rock n' roll) as an outlet, perhaps I would have acted out criminally instead of on paper. Once in prison I guess I would constantly — or once, violently and viciously — be defending my boundaries. Perhaps during my initial tension this brought back memories of being an only child, and feeling of being controlled and emotionally defenseless in a claustrophobic household of origin.

Artists and teachers should encourage community arts inside correctional facilities, whether comics, murals, 'zines or (yeah, right) web publications. Communications scholars should also provide media education "in da joint" where the TV that offers up unattainable delights — KFC fried chicken, SUVs, Beyonce Knowles — is so often turned on. My own vision of hell would be constant blaring TV. If comics are "the poor man's movie", then I hope participants in this brief workshop now realize they have a studio at their fingertips. I hope it gave them a new way to contemplate, accept and productively mine their own life experiences. Doing so can bring them to greater understanding and control of their individual lives. It can lead to understanding of — and motivation to change — the social forces that have shaped them. Time will tell...but there are worse ways of doing time.

Mike Mosher has been a contributor and member of the Bad Subjects Production Team since 1994 and wrote about prisons and cyberspace in issue 24. Shohakusha Publications of Tokyo, Japan has just published his English language textbook written with Noriko Uosaki, The Lyrics and Background of 15 Hit Songs.

Copyright © 2004 by Mike Mosher. Images from the game "Monopoly ". All rights reserved.
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