“We’re catching up to a worldwide understanding that people enjoy being told stories through words and pictures,” said George Cochrane, a graphic novelist and professor of visual arts at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
It started when former student Doug Atkins, an advanced senior art major, came to Cochrane with an idea to do an independent study on comic books. In the process, he was not only inspired to create his own graphic novels, but also started a graphic novel movement on campus, which had the following of both students and faculty.
In Fall 2008, the Graphic Novel Society formed, with the goal of creating original student work from both writing and art students. In its first year, it generated about 50 pages of student work, however, it never was assembled into a printable format.
The Graphic Novel Society is unknown to some students. Last year, Cochrane spent much of his time in the classroom or working, displaying and publishing his developing 24 graphic novel series. This caused the club to lose its “robust cohesion,” he said. “But this year we’re bringing it back.”
He has plans to work with the group Scribblers, which credits students’ original work.
Scribblers member Valerie Salmon said, “Scribblers has been in contact with Cochrane, and the idea has been floating around that if Scribblers Magazine becomes big enough, we may publish some of GNS’s work, but no comics/ graphic novels have been submitted thus far.”
Salmon was also involved in the Graphic Novel Society during its first appearance on campus. She explained that “writers and illustrators paired off and began working on stories.”
In addition, she recalled one student documenting the society’s progress on an online site. The group was also heavily involved in learning about the graphic novel itself.
The graphic novel is a medium that is expansive in terms of subject matter. Cochrane said the “cultural phenomena that the graphic novel has, if you look across society, has enjoyed a greater level of recognition and respect from people who previously may not have thought it worth their time.”
Cochrane credits The New York Times with doing weekly book reviews on graphic novels. “If The New York Times is paying attention to it [graphic novels] then the rest of America is paying attention to it,” he said.
The graphic novel goes beyond the cinematic superhero dramas and touches on some of the most sensitive subjects like the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” and homosexuality in “Stuck Rubber Baby” by Howard Cruse, a graphic novelist whom Cochrane plans on inviting to campus in the spring.
“Today’s reality is the graphic novel is treating every subject that you can imagine,” he said.
“If you want to learn about the beat writers like Jack Kerouac, there’s a graphic novel about them. If you want to read about what’s going on right now in Palestine and in Israel and places like that you can go read a graphic novel by someone who’s there and writing it.”
He attributes the graphic novel’s worldwide success to the notion that people like to be told stories, but they like to be told stories through words and pictures even more.
Cochrane’s current project is a semi-autobiographical, 24 series graphic novel, which is a combination of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Homer’s “Odyssey” and the unreleased (until several days ago) song “Long Time Gone” by Bob Dylan, after which he named his fourth graphic novel.
Though it seems like a lot of intermixing inspiration, Cochrane put it very simply: “My goal is to inhabit a story that is already there before me.” He continued, “The story is, very simply, I get up in the morning very early, I leave my home, I go to my studio, I work, I spend the day working. Perhaps I’ll come out and teach if I’m teaching that day and then I’ll go home, which is the story of Odysseus. He goes out, he has adventures, he comes back. It’s the classic story.”
When the series is complete, there will be 24 books. Each book takes place in one hour of time, so, altogether, the series will take place during one day. He estimated a decade to complete the final piece.
His graphic novel series has been such a success that Dewey’s Comics along Madison’s main street sells his novels.
However, some of his success is attributed to his daughter Fiamma, 8, co-writer and illustrator, and the youngest person to be displayed at the MASS MoCA, where his series was displayed for the museum’s 10th anniversary gala.
Cochrane described the moment when the director of MASS MoCA got on stage to introduce his daughter. There was a big party and it was great honor to be displayed there. The director thanked the artists and then “stopped everybody, made them listen to him and he introduced my daughter as perhaps the youngest ever exhibiting artist at MASS MoCA. It was priceless,” he said.
His daughter contributes her original stories and illustrations, which are as personal as when her dwarf hamster bit her, a segment seen in “Long Time Gone.”
He said her experience of displaying her work in an adult world is different than other children her age, seeing as she began working with him at five-and-a-half years old.
A few days after the exhibition, Cochrane said, his daughter asked him “what it would be like going to school when you’re famous.” He said he assured her that she wasn’t, though surely there aren’t many 8-year-olds who have their work bought at comic book stores.
With all Cochrane’s success, he remains modest and passionate about his work, which has affected students both in and out of the classroom.
He was already invited to teach the writing process to Professor David Daniel’s creative writing classes and will be guest teaching two of Professor Nandita Ghosh’s contemporary world literature classes.
Also in the classroom, Cochrane displayed the early stages of his work to students.
Former student Eric Schroeter described Cochrane as unbelievably passionate and said of his work, “every frame a Rembrandt.”
“Any part of art he will step into it and be completely open to it,” Schroeter said.
Teaching students the process is what drives Cochrane to do what he does.
As for his piece, he can reveal one thing for sure: “I already know how it ends. I come home.”