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January 15, 2013

Beyond the Pages: Rich Johnson Takes Comics to Drexel University


As a new year begins, so does a new semester at Drexel University…and with it comes the onset of The Graphic Novel: Industry and Art. That’s the comics course that Drexel students can now take with Rich Johnson, former vice president at DC and cofounder of Yen Press. We quizzed Johnson about this course, which he describes as “a mix of business and creative.”

Congratulations on the new teaching endeavor! What made you want to do it?
Ego, pure ego. I love hearing myself talk --- kidding.  Harking back to my days at DC Comics, I have always felt a little like an evangelist for graphic novels. Originally trying to build interest where there wasn’t really any enthusiasm for the medium and later trying to tap into those who were into comics and have them go out and help spread the word. And I wasn’t alone in this journey. I had people like Michael Martens, over at Dark Horse, standing with me, speaking at countless panels and trade shows, trying to generate interest and enthusiasm. So, I have always enjoyed the idea of entering into a room and talking a bit and leaving with,at least some of the people excited about reading comics.
What all will the class entail?
Part of it will be a history of the medium and how it grew from comic strips being collected into comic books and go all the way through to the rise of the graphic novel in the mainstream. We’ll also look at the structure of putting a book together, from editorial to production and sales and marketing of the book. I am also planning on bringing in some experts on these issues, either in person or by Skype or phone, to talk about their specific jobs and skill sets.
How are the classes going so far?
I’ve done two classes so far and it’s been good. I had the revelation that this generation of students has always been able to buy a graphic novel at a bookstore or check one out at a library.
What’s on the syllabus?
Part of what I’m trying to do is get them thinking about the entire publishing process; from that first idea for a book to how it is written and drawn to how it is produced, sold and marketed. I actually brought in a bunch of graphic novels and set up a very small display of books for them to look through. They then had time to “shop” the section and pick out a book to read. My point was that everything a publisher, writer, artist does in order to get the book to market comes down to that moment where the customer stands in front of a row of books and picks one to buy.
They then have to explain what attracted them to the book and what made them decide to read it. After they’ve read the book, they report back to me and discuss the book to find out if the book lived up to their expectations. It’s almost a little focus group.
What do you think will be the most surprising or unexpected book you’ll be teaching?
I think I’ll have to wait to see what they bring up. The books I am bringing up are not unexpected, so it depends on what the students gravitate toward.
What are you most looking forward to discussing in the class?
There are a lot of things I am eager to discuss, but I guess at the top of the list is finding out how this generation views the medium. I, like many other people, have witnessed this industry growing and maturing and being more accepted as a viable medium in the mainstream. This generation has such a wide variety of titles to choose from, and I want to know what they want and how they find it, in all formats --- print and digital.

-- John Hogan