Why You may not get to Learn to Draw Comics if You are in Prison

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I've been a commercial illustrator for 25+ years and I recently finished a watercolor character sketch of two super heros for a small business that wanted to hang the painting in their office. I found out later he had the super heros in the drawing made into an animated commercial complete with professional voice over talent. I've included an image of the painting and a link to the YouTube video in this blog. For this article, I thought I'd write about what it takes to become a comic book illustrator, and why you might never get the chance if you're trying to learn while in prison.

Commercial illustrators are often hired to create images for comic books and strips. They use sketches in a series of sequential panels to tell a story. Most comics include text written by a second person, so the artist must learn to incorporate it as part of the overall design.

Whether it is a graphic novel, a comic book, or cartoon strip for the paper, the process of making comics is the same. If the project is a strip or a single panel, it is usually the work of a single person. Larger projects such as graphic novels will require a team with each person having a specific task. For instance, a colorist is responsible for adding color to black-and-white line art.

      If you are considering a job as a comic book illustrator, publishers look for the following skills:

  • Training in illustration, fine arts or graphic design.
  • A strong portfolio of original work.
  • Talent for visual communication and storytelling.
  • Familiarity with comic genres.

Because I sell books banned in prisons on this website, I find it interesting that comic books and “learn to draw instruction manuals” are banned in prisons. So, if you are an incarcerated person, you are not able to retrain for future employment as a comic book illustrator.

There are many reasons why prisons ban books. Their biggest concern is whether the books might pose a “security problem”. Comic books end up on lists of banned books in prisons because they contain sexually explicit or violent material.

Traditionally, English-language comic books have a male audience. This has led to sexism and harassment of female fans. Women play a variety of roles in comic books, including damsels in distress and powerful heroines. However, the female characters all tend to be sexually suggestive, from the way their bodies are drawn to the clothes they are wearing.

Prisons ban traditional “How To” publications for security reasons. These include electronic and computer programming manuals, as well as books on how to draw. These decisions block the opportunity for prisoners to learn how to create comics and to develop an artistic skill which can lead to employment opportunities when they re-enter the workforce.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a list of banned books and every state has its own list as well. These book lists can contain up to 20,000 titles. As noted by PEN America, a non-profit organization founded in 1922 that works for advocacy and free expression through literature, these lists constitute the largest book ban in the United States.

The censorship inside prisons is not an isolated trend, but is representative of what is going on in America as a whole. This is part of a greater silencing, from removing timeless classics off the library shelves to taking popular children's novels out of the classroom. However, with prisoners it’s a bit more pronounced because they’re a vulnerable population. There are a number of of advocacy groups trying improve the situation, but its a hard battle. You can support the freedom to read by participating in local events during Banned Books Week and by reading as many comic books as possible and learning to draw!

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About the Author: Karen Strum is a Tampa Bay illustrator available for freelance projects. A unique cast of characters in her style can be designed for use in advertisements and materials for which you want something extra special. Karen's cartoons use retro imagery and vintage color palettes that add charm to every image she creates whether it is a comic, logo, diagram, book cover, or concept image. [Send an Email]


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