A groundbreaking artist who seamlessly moves from the hushed solitude of the studio to the teeming interactivity of the classroom will be the keynote speaker for Pennsylvania College of Technology’s third Wildcat Comic Con on Saturday, Sept. 27.
Barbara Slate, one of the first women to write and draw for Marvel and DC Comics – and who has been called “titanically talented” by industry legend Stan Lee – will kick off the day’s events with a presentation in the Klump Academic Center Auditorium. Her talk, titled “My Life in Comics,” will recap an impressive career that has coincided with the growth of graphic novels from an under-the-covers cult to a well-respected genre.
“Kids have always been interested, which led to the demonization of comic books in the 1950s as ‘everything that is wrong with youth today,’” Slate said. “Parents and educators were freaked out about comics, believing that the pictures were ‘dumbing down’ the kids.” For a long time, she noted, picture books went by the wayside after third grade, replaced by “all those words on white paper” that ironically served to discourage many youngsters from reading.
Then came the “huge turnaround,” Slate said. “Mainstream publishers realized that, if they changed the name to ‘graphic novels’ (a term popularized by cartoonist Will Eisner), moms wouldn’t realize that their kids were reading those dreaded comic books!”
Today, those works are helping teachers and librarians lure once-wary students to literacy and language, and movie screens are heavily populated with superheroes and others who sprang from their pages.
It was the marriage of culture and academics that gave rise to the Wildcat Comic Con in 2012, as Penn College consciously aimed to make its event different from other such comic-book conventions. While the schedule does include a menu of fun activities familiar to devotees, there are sessions to help educators incorporate graphic novels into their lesson plans.
“Barbara is the perfect choice for WCC 2014,” said Joann L. Eichenlaub, assistant director of library services at the college’s Madigan Library and a member of the Wildcat Comic Con steering committee. “She is an enormously talented cartoonist and artist, graphic novelist and teacher. She was profiled in the book ‘A Century of Women Cartoonists,’ focused on women cartoonists and comics created specifically for girls, which had traditionally been a male-dominated career and industry. Even today, comics for girls are minimally represented in the market. We are looking forward to Barbara sharing all of her experience at this year’s Comic Con!”
Slate’s first character appeared during the 1970s at the dawn of the women’s movement. “Ms. Liz” was featured on millions of greeting cards, in a monthly comic strip for Cosmopolitan magazine and in a series of animated segments on NBC’s “Today.”
An even bigger break came when she created “Angel Love” for DC Comics, where corporate President Jenette Kahn fortuitously was looking for something to pique the interest of girls. From there, Slate created, wrote and drew “Yuppies from Hell” and “Sweet XVI” for Marvel, and put her own spin on the Disney classics “Beauty and the Beast” and “Pocahontas,” as well as “Archie’s” Betty and Veronica, and Mattel’s “Barbie.”
Her latest work is “Getting Married and Other Mistakes,” and a how-to book, “You Can Do a Graphic Novel,” has provided its author with a new sideline: teaching. The critically acclaimed primer and its companion Teacher’s Guide will be released soon as e-books by Britannica Digital Learning.
Slate’s first class assignment was at a library about 10 minutes from her home in eastern New York state.
“I told the librarian that I wanted to cap it at 15 and she said, ‘We will never get that many teenagers in our library,’” she recalled. (They got 15.) On a recent Tuesday, she taught four classes of ninth- and 10th-graders – “teens and ’tweens who keep me on my toes.”
As a writer and artist accustomed to working in an isolated space, Slate says ”It’s heaven” to get up in front of young people, helping them learn about themselves, their creative processes and the beautiful art of sharing a personal tale “with a beginning, a middle, an end … and a twist.”
“‘Who thinks they can’t draw?’ I’ll ask them,” anticipating the students’ insistence that their seemingly primitive scrawls are decidedly not worthy. “And I’ll tell them, ‘Yes, you can. You don’t have to be the greatest artist in the world.’ Everyone has a story, and even stick figures – which are so expressive – can move that story along.”
Admission to the 2014 Wildcat Comic Con is an all-inclusive $20 per person for pre-registrants and $25 on-site (children under 12 are free). As the event draws closer, tickets will be sold through the Community Arts Center’s ticketing site. (The Arts Center, in downtown Williamsport, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Penn College.)
Visit the Wildcat Comic Con website in the months ahead for more about programming and presenters, cosplay (costumed play) and the vendor and Artist Alley area, among other attractions.