The Art Behind To Teach: An Interview with Ryan Alexander-Tanner
Ryan Alexander-Tanner is the artist behind Dr. William Ayers’ words in a new comic book called To Teach: The Journey, in Comics. A brilliant addition to the field of comic books and graphic novels, the collaboration between Ayers and Alexander-Tanner is magical and is surely one of the best comic works of the year. In my humble opinion, it’s mandatory reading for both in-service and pre-service teachers alike.
The magical collaboration between you and Dr. Ayers shines through in To Teach. Can you offer some insight into the writing process you two went through to create such magic between the words and the images in To Teach?
Looking back on it, the thing that strikes me most is how wholly Bill enacts the principles he describes in To Teach. In order for us to have a truly successful collaboration, we each needed to act as experts in our own fields and be both teachers and learners at once. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought because I was so focused on getting the project done that I sort of had blinders on, but in retrospect, it amazes me that Bill was able to take such a humble approach to this book he had written and allow me to come in and really instruct him in how to adapt it into another medium.
In the foreword, Jonathan Kozol writes, “Words and pictures, when commingled with a skillful artistry, lead, in Ayer’s nicely chosen words, ‘to a dazzling dance of the dialectic’ that propels us into asking questions we have never asked before.” What questions do you feel emerged from the collaboration between words and images in To Teach?
I think that if we really did our jobs properly, the work we created would inspire folks to ask themselves, as artists and educators, individuals and collective contributors, teachers and learners, how we might find new ways of describing ideas and creative approaches to practical problems.
Just the other day, my friend and graphic novel expert extraordinaire Mr. John Shableski asked me if I had read the introduction to To Teach. Of course I had, and John and I discussed in great detail the amazing way in which you and Ayers introduced the graphic novel as a format and not a genre. Why was this emphasis on format so important to include in the introduction?
It seemed necessary in the introduction to provide a sort of primer for our audience, many of whom, presumably or maybe even ideally, hadn’t really read many comics before. It was important to me that we make an argument for comics while not putting people off by taking ourselves too seriously. I think we make a lot of points in that introduction and one of them is that comics are not a genre: It’s not a subcategory of literature or illustration; it’s a medium that stands on its own. Film is made up of lots and lots of photographs combined with recorded sound, but it’s not a subcategory of either of those mediums; it’s a medium all its own, with its own aesthetics and narrative capabilities. We make light of it, but I do feel that comics are very often marginalized, and a focus of my approach as a comics artist is to push the boundaries of expectation and try to create work that is an example of how this medium can speak for itself.
Dr. Ayers is such a dynamic, vibrant individual. He inspires teachers with his enthusiasm and passion for transformative, lifelong, and authentic education each and every day. What was it like to illustrate such a vibrant and passionate character?
It was a lot of fun! One thing I did early on in the process was read a lot of what Bill has written and go see him speak to classes or groups so I could sort of study the way he presents himself. I always try to think of the characters in comics I’m working on as actors and really get a sense of their particular posture and the ways they express themselves through physicality. Bill does this thing when he’s sharing an idea where he puts his fingertips on his chest and he sort of tilts his head and I really saw that as his defining posture. Look for it in the book or if you have an opportunity to see him speak publicly….
What were your own school experiences like? Were they transformative, like those advocated for by Dr. Ayers, or were they typical, traditional, and standards-based? How did these experiences influence your work on To Teach?
As I reached adolescence, I found myself having a more and more difficult time in school and I think some of that had to do with this sort of obsession I had in comics as a narrative medium, which was an intensive ongoing investigation for me that very seldom correlated with what I was assigned in school. I would be failing chemistry and on the weekends I’d be studying Dan Clowes or Jason Shiga. One thing To Teach really advocates is that educators should make an effort to know their students and recognize what they’re interested in or motivated by so it can be applied to the classroom environment. There were a few teachers in my school experience that opened those doors for me, like Bill’s brother, Rick, who was an English teacher of mine in high school, and Meredith McMonigle, a history teacher who allowed me to do a mandatory documentary assignment as a comic book, which is actually how I first met Bill. We decided to include her in the book because she was, for me, a really great example of a teacher who found effective educational pathways for reluctant learners such as myself. However, despite those choice examples, I seldom recall school as a pleasant or accommodating experience, and that’s something I always try to be mindful of in my own approach as an educator. It’s such a challenge to find out what each individual student needs in order to push forward and find a way to develop their own strengths and interests within a larger, mandatory curriculum, but when that goal is reached, the results can be profound and even life-changing.
One of my favorite moments in To Teach is on page 74. In the bottom, far right panel, you illustrate what it was/is like for Dr. Ayers to try to find what Larry Cuban calls “wiggle room” between two opposing ideals. What were you thinking when you illustrated that particular panel?
I was just visually interpreting something Bill had written. Most of the visual language in the book came out of brainstorms about how to express these ideas through narrative-based illustrations. Based on your reaction, that one seems to have been particularly effective. From a technical standpoint, it was fun to make that image because I got to draw our Bill character a bit larger than usual. The majority of the drawings in To Teach were pretty small, which can be a really challenging way to work…maybe on some level that, too, is being expressed by that image?
If you were asked to talk to a group of teachers about your illustrating experience with To Teach, what would you want to say to them?
I have had that opportunity and I hope to have it again. One of the things I do professionally is give presentations to educators who are interested in utilizing comics in the classroom but don’t feel familiar enough with the medium to teach them. One of my loftiest ambitions in adapting To Teach was to create an example of how comics can present big ideas in a way that’s both complex and accessible.
You are clearly an excellent comic artist who truly appreciates and understands how comic art can breathe multidimensional life into print-text literacies. What can readers look forward to reading from you in the future?
Wow, what a flattering question! I’m actually developing something right now, but it’s too early in the process to discuss what it is other than that it’s in collaboration with an author. As far as the future of my work in general, I’ll always try to create comics that both honor the traditions of the medium and push the boundaries of expectation.