Stanford class creates graphic novels, from concept to finished books

Stanford students collaborate in "comics journalism" – producing books on contemporary social issues. This year's book, 'Pika-Don,' tells the story of the man who survived the atomic bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Jack Hubbard

The Stanford Graphic Novel Project's students produce a full-length graphic novel in a few months.

Some claim it is the new new journalism. Others consider it a debased art, little more than book-length comics. But no one can deny that graphic novels are very big on the contemporary cultural scene.

So the Stanford Graphic Novel Project is a very successful sign of the times. Its students produce a published, full-length graphic novel in a few short months. This year's novel, Pika-Don, tells the story of a survivor of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945. It was published this month.

"It's not being done anywhere else in the world," said comics journalist Dan Archer, "in the sense of a collaborative, university-level syllabus, where students have the ability to come in, without that much prior experience, and go away with their hands all over a graphic novel."

Cambridge-educated Archer, a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford, is the art director for the project.

This annual collaboration between undergraduate and graduate artists, designers, and writers puts an additional twist on an already unconventional offering: The students are using the books as a vehicle for social change.

Novelist and short story writer Adam Johnson, an associate professor of English, cites his students' goal "to tell real-world stories and give voice to those who might otherwise go unheard in the hopes of doing good, seeking justice and bringing about change."

The project is already a hit. Last month Playboy magazine named the project one of the 20 best college courses in America, hailing Johnson and Archer as "graphic pioneers" among those who are "reinventing the classroom."

Page from the graphic novel

'Pika-Don' tells the story of a survivor of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945.

"What we're seeing is a rise in what graphic art can do as a type of activism and as an education tool," Archer told Playboy.

"We wanted to teach a different kind of class. Instead of saying, 'Hey, let's learn to do novel writing by reading novels,' we wanted to do graphic novels from the inside out. We wanted to actually make one," said Tom Kealey, a Jones lecturer in the Stanford Creative Writing Program and one of the instructors for the project.

The project groups the students into teams of writers, illustrators and thumbnailers. Not only do the students learn about narrative in a firsthand way, they also learn an intensive kind of teamwork and conduct hands-on research that usually goes beyond the scope of their other classes. (What did the interior of a Japanese home look like in the 1940s? What do garbage cans look like in a foreign country?)

Hundreds of illustrations and thousands of hours of work later, this year's group gathered at a book signing to celebrate their newest achievement, the 185-page Pika-Don. The engrossing book tells the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi (1916-2010), who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts.

Johnson explained that Yamaguchi was caught in the Hiroshima bombing while on a business trip away from his home in Nagasaki. He had instructed his family to commit suicide in the event of a Japanese defeat. In the first bombing, however, "He saw tens of thousands of people burned to death around him. He suddenly realized the value of life, and that suicide was the worst thing that could ever happen," said Johnson.

Yamaguchi became a lifelong advocate for peace and nuclear disarmament. The book is interspersed with his poems.

"This book is the product of many sleepless nights, take-out meals and ink spills, all fueled by the passion of 21 individuals committed to telling the story of one extraordinary man," students wrote in a flier for the book.

It is the third book published by the project, which was launched in 2008. The first book Shake Girl, told the story of an acid attack victim in Cambodia in the social chaos that has followed the Khmer Rouge genocide. The book received 10,000 hits from over 70 countries in the first week it was online. The second, Virunga, followed the first female park ranger in the Congo as she worked to protect endangered gorillas and give aid to refugees. Both were compelling and complex stories, embedded in national histories that required extensive research. All the books are online.

Speaking at a recent presentation at Stanford's design school, Archer extolled the virtues of comics journalism: "It's a great way of packaging a lot of information … in a form that can capitalize on the energy." He described the thrill of discovering "how I could tell stories in small bite-size chunks."

With Olga Trusova, a current Fulbright fellow at Stanford, he is finishing Borderland, a comic book about human trafficking in Eastern Europe. The two just successfully concluded a fundraising project in September to publish, translate and distribute the work in Eastern Europe.

The project's alumni carry their skills into future professions. One former student, Sarah Snow, is now working for New Horizons Pictures in Los Angeles. "I spend a lot of time analyzing movie treatments, and I'm also working with another member of the team on a movie treatment," she said.

"The graphic novel class was an extraordinary experience that built not just our creative skills but also the collaboration," she said. "I had always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn't until the graphic novel class that I realized how much I loved the creative collaboration process. This inspired me to embark upon a career in the entertainment industry."

At last week's party, however, most students seem to be looking forward more to a good night's sleep; most described the experience as exhausting. Student Lucas Loredo summarized the feelings of many when he called it "the most intense process I've ever been involved with – and also the most rewarding."