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Chester comics history for the visual learner or reluctant reader

Comic books that bring history to life!

history in the classroom
school learning comics "My favorite is American Symbols. I like how you show what the Statue of Liberty stands for."

Bennett, South Carolina fifth-grader
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Welcome to Chester Comix! Inside this site you'll find fun samples of the way Bentley Boyd uses comix to spark interest in history for reluctant readers! Check what he's drawing now, go with him to weird historical sites across the country, or download a coloring page and put your own words into his drawings! This home page features my most recent news/blog entries. Learn more about my blog. Have fun! --Bentley Boyd

Cleveland Cartooning

October 13th, 2019

There is a Hungarian Heritage Museum and the Dettrick Medical History Center and a firefighting museum and, smack in the middle of the modern city built by heavy manufacturing, the Dunham Tavern Museum to remember a couple who moved to the area in 1819.

You know about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already.

Did you know Cleveland is also the hometown of the two Jewish creators of Superman?

Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. They changed American pop culture. There’s no museum dedicated to them or to northeast Ohio’s knack for producing great artists in this very American art form, cartoon storytelling. Cleveland spawned memoirist Harvey Pekar and writer Brian Michael Bendis (if you love the first decade of Marvel movies, thank Bendis; Hollywood pulled a lot from his groundbreaking comic book stories). “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson is from a Cleveland suburb. “Funky Winkerbean” creator Tom Batiuk is from Akron, just down the road. There are many others who have drawn here or started here in the past 100 years of cartoon storytelling.

Now I’m here. Jerry Siegel’s childhood house is two miles from where I now work, the Cleveland Museum of Art. I’m thrilled to be doing philanthropy communications in my day job, helping to raise support for spectacular shows such as the current Michelangelo: Mind of the Master, in which you can see the famous artist doodling his ideas on scraps of paper (like a cartoonist). I draw inspiration from working among the world’s great art every weekday. It’s easy to see how my Chester Comix education and marketing work transects my work to promote the museum. There is artistic synergy everywhere: the CMA was founded at the same time American newspaper comic strips were roaring to life a century ago.

Cleveland’s culture was really stamped in the American Century. It makes sense that a city of blue collar manufacturing also produced cartoon writers and artists, because cartooning is a democratic art form, printed on cheap paper and requiring no formal training to get to the moment of creativity. Cartooning is an easy vehicle for the children of immigrants or factory workers to express their American dreams.

Being in Cleveland inspires me. Williamsburg, Virginia, was a wonderful incubator for history comix in the 23 years I lived there, but it was a bit false to my art form. The mishmash was the idea: I was applying a modern, popular form of storytelling to the formal, distant and not-very-visual lives of colonial Americans. And I drew a LOT of those stories, digging in to all the details provided by the work of the historians and archaeologists who were my neighbors. But Patrick Henry himself would not have understood my storytelling. I was applying one American culture to another.

Being a cartoonist in Cleveland feels much more organic. And I’m short on my storytelling about 20th century America anyway. I’m looking forward to drawing in my evening and weekend hours in my Cleveland apartment, like so many of my predecessors have done. And when I need inspiration, I’ll drive by Jerry’s house on the East Side. It isn’t open to the public, but American folklore magic was created there. And maybe part of my work in the coming years will be to find a space where we can honor these American storytellers.

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Zombie Abe Lincoln!

July 28th, 2018

I have some awesome shelved projects.

That rough draft for a whole comic about Ancient India got approval from every educator I showed it to – right up to college professors who study that culture saturated with history and myth. I planned to pay for this book myself because I would sell a LOT of copies to a giant Virginia school district that mandated the teaching of Ancient India. But the draft made district officials too nervous, I lost the main customer, and I never touched the draft again.

Once a museum director asked me to make a pitch for a comic book biography of General George Marshall. It would have been hard to draw a whole book about Marshall, since his genius was in PLANNING (lots of drawings of MEETINGS!!}, but I was willing to try because he was a major force in the World War II era. The money people wouldn’t pay for even a draft to test this idea.

I voluntarily drew and colored two pages to demonstrate a comic version of a high school textbook about the core debates that have echoed through our politics for more than two centuries. I was excited to use color flow to show how two basic viewpoints on an issue (big vs. small government!} collided in a historical era. Those two pages came out beautifully. The textbook maker decided NAAAAAAH.

A lot of good ideas get stuck on the chit-chat side of the money contract. One woman’s vision to have me tell the history of her cute little Virginia town never got to the money stage. There are countless party conversations where someone gets a light bulb about matching my art to their favorite history, and then no one ever follows up.

Sometimes we get past the contract phase. Last year a major retelling of the Lewis and Clark expedition from the viewpoint of the Native American nations fell apart because the ambitious rough draft showed what the Native Americans thought — too dangerous. The buyers bailed.

When the Lewis and Clark project vanished, I got a clear view of my landscape of half-finished ideas. And there was Abe.

I rough drafted a whole book about Abraham Lincoln a decade ago, hoping to get some sales off of the bicentennial celebration of his birth. I . . . uhhhhh. . . missed that window. Other projects came along with checks attached to them, and I took those to pay the mortgage. Doing a book purely for myself, paid for by only me, is a great risk.

Of course, Abe is worth the risk. But I also couldn’t begin on the final drawings for the Abe book until I confronted the truth: I let Abe sit on the shelf so long because I am intimidated by him. I’ve always loved Abe Lincoln, and he’s a towering figure who is hard to sum up in one comic. HUNDREDS of books have been written about him. And my dad loved Lincoln, too. He made sculptures and paintings of Abe for me. Returning to Abe this year would mean I would have to go back into the tunnel where I left the Abe draft years ago and carry it forward in the chill air left after my dad’s passing in 2015. Could I finally get Abe all the way through, out into the light? Could I stay focused for three months, or would I nibble awhile and then leave him behind in the dark again?

I hope you like new book.

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Alexander Hamilton, Gamer

November 9th, 2017

I started getting the messages a year ago from enthusiastic moms who already knew my books: I should do a comic about Alexander Hamilton!!

I happily agreed. And then I resisted.

Some of it was carefulness that has soaked into me during 14 years of running this business. It takes a lot to keep 30 titles in print and moving smoothly out the door. Adding another title takes an investment of months to research, write, draw and color it. Once printed, its weight is added to the inventory: another item to track, another item to manage — and if it doesn’t sell, it’s an even bigger drag on the operation. My art has to be both fun AND a good investment.

But most of my resistance was just professional jealousy. Someone else had already found a way to make A CARGO SHIP FULL OF MONEY on a fun, lively biography of a Founding Father. There seemed to be no room for my slice of pop culture when the Hamilton musical was burning up the available oxygen. “Don’t give in to the hate,” I heard Oben-wan Franklin tell me. Right you are, Old Ben — and the easiest way to avoid the artistic hate was to just ignore It. You know, ignore that thing selling a 2 hour and 20 minute soundtrack about the Constitution like it was “Saturday Night Fever.” IG. NORE.

Then I got a business call in the first week of August 2017. A person in charge of buying educational products for two dozen gift shops in the New York City area asked for samples of several Chester titles and added the magic words, “Do you have anything on Hamilton?”

I will soon, I said. She had just solved my business problem. Now I had to finally confront my artistic problem. HOW could I tell Alexander Hamilton’s story in my own way, separate from the style and feel of the musical now on infinite loop in millions of family vehicles carrying teen-aged daughters and their moms?

The musical has great metaphors and wordplay to it – Hamilton is “writing like he’s running out of time.” But they’re not very visual once you get past the duel. The duel is great for a dramatic play, but Hamilton is MUCH more than that duel. How could I make that point with a metaphor that’s visual but still fun?

The answer was as close to me as my own sons and my nephews living nearby. We are GAMERS. Games teach strategy and social skills and math and language. I didn’t think it would be possible to orient family life around games more than I had in raising my sons, but now I am astounded at how much the families in my nephews’ community play board games and strategy games together. There are literally bars in Columbus set up so you can have a beer while you play Parcheesi or Settlers of Catan.

So that’s the metaphor of my Hamilton biography. The fun of a game begins with a fair start. In chess, both players start with the same pieces. In Monopoly, players don’t bring their own wallet to the table, they get the same set amount of play money. How exciting it must have been for teen-aged Alexander Hamilton to come to New York City as an immigrant and feel that here in this port of many people he had an equal chance to succeed. In the bustle of the city, his energy and intelligence could bring him success alongside the children of wealthy, established American families. Then, when it came time to create a new nation with a new set of rules, Hamilton fought to make sure those rules gave people the equal opportunity that he had as a young man in America. What else is government except a set of rules that we all agree to play by?

On almost every page of the new comic, there is a picture or bit of wordplay that references some popular game. (I tried to figure out a way to get corn hole in there but could not.) When you get your copy, see if you can spot the different games hidden in my biography of Hamilton. I hope you’ll think my take on Hamilton is more fun than Twister. (Page 13)

Posted in Author's Purpose, Comix Creation | Comments Off on Alexander Hamilton, Gamer

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