13 Ways of Looking at Creativity

Illustrations by Christopher Sperandio

Comics belong in college, artist Christopher Sperandio contends. They’re educational, artful and powerful vehicles of cultural criticism — not to mention entertaining.

An associate professor in the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts, Sperandio embraces comics both as mass culture consumable and as works of artistic integrity. 

In his popular course, ARTS 230: Comics and Sequential Art, Rice students learn the history of comic books — “one of the few truly American art forms” — while also producing their own sequential stories. The students who are drawn to the course are generally familiar with superhero-themed comic books from the DC and Marvel universes, popular graphic novels like “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” and Japanese manga — but few have tried their hand at creating their own.   

Over the course of the semester, students explore narrative topics in gradually more complex formats: from simple three-panel forms to three pages and then to a final project — a 16-page original comic. This “crawl, walk, run” approach helps develop the creative process, especially for students who’ve been told they are not creative, Sperandio said. Some work in digital software, but most are inclined to pick up a pencil and pen to draw their creations. 

Freshman Catherine Hettler explored social justice advocacy in her first hand-drawn panel comic, which she described as sort of a PSA about the Women’s March. “It encourages people to look into the march and take a stand.” This class was one of her favorite first-year experiences at Rice. “Because we had so much freedom in what we could write about in our comics, it was open to whatever your interests are outside of art. I definitely learned a lot about art and composition, but also storytelling,” Hettler said. 

A key teaching resource for the class, Sperandio said, is the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop, a repository of comics, original comic art and books on comics located in a former conference room in Sewall Hall. 

“Having this comics resource at hand is crucial in teaching as it opens the subject to the students. In closely analyzing the original art, students can unlock how the things were made,” he said. “I try and get them to think about how do we do this.”