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Graphic novelist looks at teen angst in “Eighth Grade”

The key to addictive comics is in the writing, not the art.

That’s how comic book creator Sam Alden views his craft, even though he may be on his way to becoming a top illustrator.

Alden is a 2012 graduate of Whitman College who is spending his summer in Southeast Alaska as a Sitka Fellow, in a new program on the Sheldon Jackson Campus. He hopes to use his seven-week residency to fully develop an idea for his latest work, a graphic novel titled Eighth Grade.

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Although we usually talk about choice as a luxury, for some recent college graduates it can be burden: job hunting, grad school, marriage. Not so for Sam Alden.

“Some of my very earliest art was comics. Before I could even write, I would draw pictures, and then make my parents write captions on the side. So, I wanted to be a cartoonist from day one.”

Alden’s mother was a children’s book author and illustrator; his father, a childhood psychiatrist. He grew up in Portland and attributes much of his career direction – and success – to them. Alden’s first project as a person “out in the real world” is a look back.

“For me personally, eighth grade had this sense of finality to it, because it was my first big graduation, before high school or college. So, it really felt like the end of the world.”

Alden has completed the first chapter of his graphic novel Eighth Grade and hopes to complete another in Sitka. He says the book will be dark, foul-mouthed – a lens for a primarily grown-up audience to view the sometimes-trauma, and always-drama of adolescence. Who hasn’t been here:

“You’d go to somebody’s parents’ basement and there’d be like five pineapple-Canadian bacon pizzas on a table that no one really wanted to eat. The boys would be on one side, sort of pretending not to care. The girls would have all dressed up, and they’d be in a huddle on the other side, and no one would be dancing. The music would be way too loud and from a few years ago, because no one knew how to DJ parties. And you’d just stand there for hours and hours and be miserable.”

An illustration he did for his college radio station has characters that Alden will also use in “Eighth Grade.” A tall girl and a much shorter boy awkwardly dancing at arm’s length, while a crowd of other kids leers at them in the background. The drawing captures the contradiction of what should be a pleasant moment. Alden says this is the hardest part of his work.

“The facial expressions are always what kill me. That’s always what I spend an hour on: trying to convey what they’re feeling, and also what they’re trying to project. That they’re trying to smile, but there’s some instinct that’s telling them not to, or vice versa.”

During his time at Whitman, Alden says he was basically the “Art Director for everything.” He also started building a professional portfolio illustrating the credits for an upcoming independent film, and working as the official illustrator for an international menswear fashion show.

Alden says he goes back and forth about whether attending a small liberal arts college was the right choice for him, rather than art school. In the end though, he says his college English classes did more to inform his career in comics than the study of art.

“Comics is also a field that’s really open to people who aren’t that amazing at drawing. You know you can do a really good comic just with the doodles that you might do in the margins of your notebook, or on a yellow sticky note while you’re talking on the phone. I think writing is so much more important. That’s what gets you addicted to comics.”

Eighth Grade is still a long way from publication. In the meantime, Alden says he tries to post something just about every day to his blog at gingerlandcomics on blogspot.

Alden is one of eight Sitka Fellows living in the community this summer. The program runs through August 31.

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