Finland report part 2: International comics degree programs

And here I continue my report on the comics teaching conference at the end of March hosted by Sarjakuvakeskusthe Comics Center of Helsinki, Finland.

  1. Day one: Nordic comics schools and Scott McCloud (now updated with lots more info)
  2. Day two: Comics degree program reports
  3. Day three: What we know about Finland (comics, cartoonists, Moomin) and studying in Europe (ways to approach studying comics abroad).

On day two of the conference, four comics teachers (including me) presented their programs and approaches. I’m a relatively veteran comics teacher. I’ve been teaching regularly since 2001 (and started in 1998), full year courses, workshops, seminars, you name it. So what was most striking to me about these presentations was how distinct each approach was. There’s a part of me that believed, until then, that there was a narrow band of ways to approach teaching comics well (and obviously a lot of ways to do it badly). Clearly, I was quite wrong.


Dan Berry of Glyndwr University (pronounced Glen-dewar, more or less) in Wrexham, Wales is the founder and head of a program that’s just completing its third year (and graduating its first crop of students). He’s packed an incredible amount of experience into his tender years, and inspired intense envy in me when he told me that he had been working away on design projects, teaching a bit, and then got tapped to design this new program from the ground up. The ground up! Oh, one can but dream.

Anyway. Dan is the right guy for the job, because he’s a whirlwind of energy. I have no idea how his students keep up.

  • He drew some inspiration from the program at Angouleme, with input and ideas from many other sources: journalists, publishers, cartoonists. It’s structurally based in an existing course in children’s books at Glyndwr (meaning he’s using space and faculty that were already in place), with one full-time and three part-time faculty.
  • In Britain, after completing secondary school (high school to us Americans), which they do at 16, students can choose to go to a one-year foundation program in art, wherever they can get accepted. Then, if they want to go on, they apply AGAIN the next year, to three-year programs like at Glyndwr, which award a bachelor’s degree.
  • There are about 15-20 spots per year in the program. Two other programs that fall in the same department: children’s books and illustration.
  • It’s project-based (they call them briefs) and projects can last one to three (?) weeks. Maybe more? Dan, please correct me. Students must present in front of group.

    by Joonas Sildre

  • First year topics: Drawing: life drawing, sketchbooks, developing a unique style. Design language: typography, layout, composition. Physical processes (like printmaking, animation, etc.). Critical approaches: art and design theory, lectures on comics. Intro to creative writing: analyze structure (of existing work), short writing exercises.
  • All three years: there are lectures on professional development topics, taxes, running a small business, concrete stuff.
  • Second year, students do more in their particular program (“specialism”): Faculty design briefs to challenge students’ current work method. Research briefs: Students will do research, sometimes on a trip (for example to a local castle) and have to use that as the starting point for a story. Lectures on visual culture. Visits to comics events and conventions: the program gets a table at many conventions, and has students present their work. Students visit events like Laydeez Do Comics.
  • Guests visit and set the students briefs. For example, Paul Gravett came in and had students do a “hypercomic” on the wall. (DL a free hypercomics iPad app). And John Allison the author of successful webcomics Scary Go Round brought in a business plan.
  • The third year is negotiated, meaning the students write their own briefs in consultation with faculty.



OK, so I realized after my first day that as strange as some of these educational arrangements sound to me, our system must be as bizarre to others. For example: the practice of requiring a whole slew of humanities and science classes to get an art degree seems basically unheard of in Europe (I can sense my students flocking to European schools as I type…). I don’t run a program, but here’s a quick rundown of how things are done at the School of Visual Arts, where I teach. (A listing of sample courses is here.)


By Dan Berry

  • Year 1: foundation. This is a set of art courses that tries to cover most of the basics: drawing, painting, sculpture, and bit of computer skills. No comics or sequential art. Also humanities and art history
  • Year 2: first year of the comics program. courses include: Principles of Cartooning (all the basics), Storytelling (more about styles and approaches to comics storytelling—I teach this class), Drawing (perspective, anatomy, techniques), electives (like ink drawing, lettering, digital coloring, etching, silkscreen, etc.) + humanities.
  • Year 3: Pictorial problems (also known as junior thesis: the whole year is given one theme, such as fairy tales, and must choose a work to adapt—I teach this one.), electives + humanities
  • Year 4: Senior portfolio (negotiated projects), senior series (an array of short segments on various topics, like perspective, humor in comics, professional practice, all kinds of things), senior electives (including experimental comics, drawing on location, advanced storytelling, all kinds of things) + humanities, if the students haven’t finished their requirements.
  • Students take about 15-18 credits/semester, and one course is usually 3 hours/week for 15 weeks, and offers 2-3 credits.
  • Most other programs that offer a BFA (Bachelor’s of Fine Art) will be somewhat similar (especially in having a foundation year and requiring a set number of humanities, science, and art history credits), though the details of what’s required within the major (i.e. comics) will differ.
  • SVA is a rather unusual school in that it does not have full-time faculty. All faculty are meant to be working professionals who teach on the side (thus bringing in real-world experience). There are also a lot of students (I honestly don’t know how many–maybe 60-65 cartooning students a year?), which allows for lots of classes to run, which means students can end up taking a given teacher only one semester (or never) easily, and everyone has his or her own different program depending on what classes he/she decided to take. Even the core classes (Principles, Pictorial Problems, Portfolio) are offered by 4-6 faculty, and are radically different fron one another.
  • Pretty much all schools in the USA offer this somewhat-piecemeal approach: you can make a lot of choices about what teachers and what classes you will take. This is unlike the other three progams presented at the comics teaching seminar: they all had a much more tightly-controlled curriculum, and groups of students that moved through the curriculum together, as far as I understood.

With all that in mind, then, the approach of our textbook, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, which I also presented, (and which you may already know if you’re reading this here) is to offer a very structured, orderly, and progressive approach to a first-year cartooning student, whether in the context of a class or on his or her own.

  • Two main threads: concrete skills (like penciling and inking) and conceptual understanding (how juxtaposition works, pictorial composition, narrative arc).
  • Step-by-step progress from a single drawing to a multi-page story
  • We don’t cover things like perspective and figure drawing—we focus on comics as narrative.



Next spoke Thierry Van Hasselt, member of artists collective/publisher Fremok, and professor at St. Luc University in Brussels, Belgium.

Thierry is a first year teacher (of what I gather is a 3-year program. I have less detail on the Belgian system than the others). The first year at St. Luc sounds like a series of very intense, demanding projects with stringent constraints that are designed to take students out of their comfort zones. Typical comics topics (inking, digital coloring, scripting, for example) don’t seem to be taught at all, but much of the content may come up organically through the projects.

A page from the Nightmare project.
  • Thierry actually studied comics at St. Luc, and then was one of the founders of Fremok, which has the mission to explore comics language without any concern for commercial possibility. I can’t imagine Thierry bringing in a webcartoonist to discuss his business plan. (No judgement implied! I’d love to hear that presentation. Just totally different POVs.)
  • Thierry is asked often to teach at different schools, but he has an extreme teaching method. He’s more than an editor, more than an editor, he guides their process all along the way, pushes artists (students) to go as far as they can, to create their own view on what comics can be, and to experiment with media.
  • He want students to make good choices. In order to develop their abilities, he gives very strong constraints—they have limited options, but must make right choice among them.
  • First year: students learn to create basic structure, with drawing/writing texts. They learn how characters move in space.
  • For their first project, he brings students to buildings to large building, like a ministry. They must draw 16 panels on one page, just moving from place a to b. By 2nd panel, there must be movement. They can’t use any lines, only gray/shading to convey movement. They can use any medium, but this project forces them to explore relationship between form and space.
  • Another annual project, very popular: Nightmare. Students draw four pages without depicting sleeping/waking, so that the reader is simply inside a nightmare. There’s no text, and students must draw white on black background. Since they only have four pages, they have to have very strong visual idea, have to convey it clearly, and to put the reader there, with recognizable elements.
  • The progress of this four-page comic is very slow: 6 weeks or so. the strongest emphasis is cutting, page design, editing, and putting the character in panel. After this, students have the skills they need. They often have to do over multiple times to make it perfect, publishable.
  • At the end of the year, this project is collected into a book. Since dreamscapes allow for one scene to flow into another without logic, the stories can simply run into one another, and make a bigger nightmare.
  • The first-years love that they’re doing publishable work. They scan and do all the production on the book, even screenprinting the book covers.
  • Thierry’s philosophy as a teacher: the really important thing to be a cartoonist, is to find liberty,  and learn techniques. As a first-year teacher, his job is not to say no no no.
  • Technique, like printmaking, happens simultaneously with projects. Students learn while implementing techniques. Also, there are special projects with visitors, such as Killoffer, who came and did a crazy week of Oubapo with the students.

By Joonas Sildre

Thierry also spoke about a Fremok project that he’s passionate about, that grew out of their work with developmentally disabled adult artistsAktion Mix Comix Commando: short version. Is there a short version?

  • About twice a year, the project travels to some town somewhere and sets up for five days.
  • Thierry provides screen caps from two movies (his example: Eraserhead and some Belgian romcom).
  • Anyone who wants to can show up, and make linocuts based on the screen caps (the idea being: linocuts will instantly make for big, graphic images, even when made by amateurs). They must work very fast.
  • Then they bring in old, non-blank paper. Newspaper, posters, old notes and drawings, whatever.
  • They pick a lino from the wall, cut it up, rearrange with new paper, make a new image.
  • Then the group puts these in a row on the floor, tries to make connections.
  • If they can’t find anything to connect, they make empty space, and later make a new picture to link. And at the end of week, there needs to be a complete story.
  • Last, add text. People bring in books and texts that are unrelated. An old book about computers, book about housewives from the 60s…they pull out sentences to attach to images.
  • The collages look dadaist, but since they’re in line, juxtaposed, people read them as story.
  • It’s interesting to compare them to orig movies, which are still visible at moments.

Crazy, but it just might work!


Markus showing a BA thesis: 260 full-page, black and white drawings, called Autobahn.

Finally, we heard from Marcus Huber of Muthesius Kunsthochschule in Kiel, Germany. Marcus led off with some examples of his own work. He feels it’s very important that students know who their professors are as artists, and that they should choose where to study based on who they want to study with. I loved his first example, a “sketchbook” called The Sofa Book, which came out of “the worst thing you can ask an artist…I have a red sofa, and need art to go with it.” He used that and a Zappa song as inspiration for this imaginary assignment, page after page of  pieces for a red sofa. He spent the rest of the time we were with him denying that all his sketchbooks are so awesome, which we don’t believe.

Markus’s first book, 14 Schokoreigel, was meant to be published small. Its first incarnation was large-format, and he’s still not happy with that. Another part of his teaching philosophy is that how the work is published is very important. There should be a strong connection between how you make art and how it will be printed. Whatever that production method is, work FOR that production method, don’t avoid thinking about it. (interesting echo of Scott McCloud’s remarks about webcomics formats the previous day).

Before 2000 (in Germany) there was no university where one could study comics, and no cultural respect. This has really changed. Muthesius is a very small school, in the far north of Germany. There’s one professor per specialty. This is why students need to really know who the professors are at school where they plan to study.

Page from the thesis about the virus

by Joonas Sildre

Comics are a part of the illustration program, thought it’s called Visual Basics and Graphic Image Design. His predecessor, who began the comics specialty, was Martin Tom Dieck.

Three year program.

  • Semester 1: basic drawing, drawing from life, self-publication w. reportage on special place. Space very important. Also immediate publication very important, how work with books. Color: theory, color models, digital color, CMYK basic knowledge of colors in print/digital/philosophical implications of color.
  • Semester 2: ? He didn’t mention this. Perhaps a project? Or students are with another teacher?
  • Semester 3: Classical composition. Practical exercises. Also, perspective.
  • Semester 4-5: This is when students who are going to do them start working on comics via individual projects. Most do illustration, but comics are an option
  • Semester 6: thesis/dissertation: a self-directed project, planned with Markus, and followed via individual meetings. He encourages individual style at this stage. He sees a vast variety of approaches: he showed some thesis work of medical illustration/comics of a virus entering a cell, another of a folksong about the plague set in Tower of Fools in Vienna.

Next: some thoughts on studying and teaching comics abroad, and a bit more about Helsinki and the Comics Center.


3 Comments to Finland report part 2: International comics degree programs

  • by Jarod Rosello

    On April 8, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Really interesting to see how these other programs are set up. I’m kind of surprised that US schools are the only ones requiring multi-disciplinary education. I’ve always been opposed to the idea that school should be training for one specific job/skill (I tend to think we romanticize the “expert”), but that education should have a greater, human purpose. As an educator, I long for an interdisciplinary curriculum. I wonder if what our students resist is the segmenting of knowledge into disciplines more than the idea that we should experience many things.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • by Jessica

    On April 8, 2011 at 10:13 am

    I also long for a truly interdisciplinary course of study. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening at SVA. Kids pick random stuff that fulfills requirements, fits their schedule, etc. We never know what they’re studying, and there’s no integration. If only there could be more coordination! I have no idea how, though, with the openness of the structure.

  • by Yunseok Chang

    On February 2, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    Very very informative and interesting blog. I really hoped to listen these kinds of vivid stories like a nightmare project from St. Luc. This blog will be helpful for future cartoonists including me :) Thanks a lot!! (From South Korea)

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