Stanley Lieber graduated from high school at age 16 and was hired as an editorial assistant for a popular publication. Lieber began to write for the publication, was soon promoted to editor, and simplified his name on bylines for his work.
A group of 16 Springfield area teens gathered one recent Saturday morning in Springfield, and the palpable excitement in the room grew as they sought to follow in Stan Lee's footsteps. They are part of a weekly class at the Springfield Art Association that focuses on creating comic books. The students have produced eight comic books in two years.
"I get my inspiration mainly from all of the Marvel Comics. Stan Lee was a big inspiration," said 17-year-old student Gabby Patelli of Rochester. "It's a big feeling of accomplishment, especially when it's finished and you get to see it."
The most recent comic book produced by the class, a 52-page publication titled Convergence that came out in the fall of 2022, is composed entirely of the students' artwork and text. The class is now hard at work on a new comic book that will be complete this spring.
"My mom is actually the one who suggested I take the class. She has been an Art Association member for a while and takes metals classes out here," said 16-year-old Zach Busby of Chatham. "I've developed my own style for comic book art that's a bit different, but it suits what I am going for. I draw inspiration from a lot of different Japanese movie series like Dragon Ball and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure."
The teen comic book class has been offered for just two years, but it follows a successful children's comic book class that has also been held on Saturday mornings since 2012. Many of the teen class members are alumni of the children's class. Both classes are taught by a local graphic designer whom the students call "Mr. Will."
"Some superheroes have day jobs."
Fifty-year-old Will Norris is perhaps the most energetic person in the room as he guides the students through the process of creating characters, art and story lines for comic books.
"I've been a lifelong comic book and drawing fan," Norris said. "It's pretty much how my mom got me to sit still as a kid. She would either put a comic book in my lap or put crayons in my hands."
Norris considers his students as kindred spirits.
"It's still something that I'm very passionate about. I still read comics like crazy and I still enjoy playing video games," Norris said. "There's a common ground here in the class, and we get excited about the exact same things."
Norris worked as a graphic designer at the State Journal-Register, including the newspaper's Springfield's Own Magazine, and then moved on to Springfield Business Journal. During his professional career journey, Norris saw a Springfield Art Association posting for someone to teach a kids' comic book drawing class, and he was hired to work with 7-12-year-old students in January 2012.
The teen class began in 2021 because the kids' class students wanted to continue when they turned 13 years of age.
Norris flitted from table to table in the Art Association studio classroom one recent Saturday morning, often with a dry-erase board in hand so he could demonstrate drawing techniques or help students to more fully develop their characters.
"I tell students they can't just draw Superman, you have to be able to draw Clark Kent working at the Daily Planet," Norris said. "Some superheroes have day jobs. Can you draw them doing dishes or cooking dinner?"
The students responded enthusiastically and collaborated with each other, sharing ideas and images on either art-enabled electronic devices or traditional sketch pads.
"I have researched a lot into psychology to develop my characters. For instance, with villains it's very tempting to make someone who is bad for no reason," said 14-year-old Clove Spivey of Springfield. "But I think a lot of villain-type characters should have a psychological reasoning behind what they are doing."
Fifteen-year-old Willow Platt of Jacksonville has used the class to develop her own method of creating comic book characters.
"I usually take part of myself and put it into the characters I make. I really like creating motion whenever I'm making anything," Platt said. "We all really talk to each other about character stories and inspirations."
Students began the eight-week class by deciding which characters they wanted to develop and then plotted a story line for the comic book. They developed a storyboard, a sequence of drawings that serves as a plan for the book, before moving on to the artwork creation. Storyboard, writing and digital artwork experts have visited the class to advise the students.
A limited number of hard copies of the comic books are printed so each student can have one, and to place them with select local repositories like the Sangamon Valley Collection and the Springfield Art Association library. The issues are available as e-publication files so they can be read on digital reading devices.
"Ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to make something, I've wanted to create art. And to see a comic before me, it reminds me of my dreams when I was younger," said 17-year-old Sam Simonson of Springfield. "It's really fulfilling, and I'm proud of myself and my friends. I really don't know what I want to do as a career, but I definitely won't ever stop drawing."
"I bounce off the walls with them."
The teen comic book class may be getting a lot of attention, but the kids' class continues to be a big draw as well. Norris said it's very difficult to get into the kids' classes because they sell out in minutes at the beginning of every session, with Art Association members having the chance to register before the general public. There is a cap of 13 students in the kids' class, so Norris can give the students individual attention.
"I don't have kids myself and there's no reason why a man my age should know so much about Paw Patrol," Norris said. "It's because when the kids ask, 'How do I draw this character?,' I want to be able to deliver on that."
Just as in the teen class, Norris was a whirlwind of motion and encouragement as he visited each young comic book artist, giving advice and demonstrable praise to the excited youngsters.
"I once had a teacher say to me, 'I don't understand how you are able to keep all of those kids from bouncing off the walls for an hour and a half on Saturday morning,'" Norris said. "Well, the secret is that I don't, I bounce off the walls with them. I've never lost that excitement."
There was nary a phone nor video game in sight in the Art Association classroom.
"If you can make a kid want to give up a Saturday morning to come and draw with you, you must be doing something right," Norris said. "When they get excited about it, I get excited about it."
Nine-year-old Springfield resident Claire Chambers was excited about getting to hone her ability to re-create a favorite cartoon character.
"I love Garfield, and this class has helped me to draw Garfield better," Chambers said. "I've learned how to ink the characters. I like going to this class because it helps me to draw."
Reese Cashen, a 12-year-old student from Pawnee, used the drawing techniques he learned in the class to re-create a favorite character, Mysterion, from the television series "South Park."
"I learned that you can break drawing down really easily by using shapes and curves," Cashen said. "I like this class because I get to draw whatever I want and then I make a story out of it."
Another Pawnee resident, 12-year-old Brady Ward, likes to create "gruesome" characters.
"I have learned how to draw different perspectives and use different shading techniques," said Ward, a four-year class member. "You can draw a lot of fun things and there are a lot of materials to use here."
The kids' class doesn't create a comic book, but instead students design their own original comic book character, with each student getting to add a character feature. The current class character is a riotous combination of a Rubik's-Cube-and-dragon-headed, apple-cinnamon-bodied, taco-armed, lightning-breathed, tire-footed creature with pet wolves, a wizard pig sidekick and pepper spray.
Norris draws the class-created character, prints out the result, and the students each get to color their own version of the character.
Nine-year-old Cuylie Coleman of Springfield came up with the character's pet wolves.
"I learned how to draw a wolf and a deer in this class," Coleman said. "Sometimes me and my friends do a drawing challenge and now I sometimes win."
Nine-year-old Springfield resident Leo Kimmel took the character one step further and added his own flourishes.
"I added monster stuff to it until it turned into this," Kimmel said as he proudly showed the result to his fellow classmates. "They have taught me many things here and how to draw."
The Springfield Art Association recently had a mini-exhibit of the special characters created by each kids' class through the years.
"No idea is too silly or too crazy."
Will Norris is clearly in his element each Saturday morning as he first guides the younger children for an hour and a half, followed by the teens for two hours.
Classes go from raucous and giddy to quiet and contemplative, often changing tone in seconds, as the students work through the creative process of developing comic books and characters. The one constant is the ubiquitous summons for guidance, "Mr. Will!"
"I want the kids to create. I don't want them to just call up a picture on their phone and copy it. I want them to come up with their own ideas," Norris said. "I don't want them to be shy about what they create. I want them to see that no idea is too silly or too crazy."
The comic book classes cost $110 for Springfield Art Association members and $140 for non-members. Registration opened March 6 and the classes are usually filled within minutes of the registration going live, Norris said. He added that there is a waiting list for both sessions and interested parents can place their children on a list in case someone withdraws from the class. Visit www.springfieldart.org for registration information.
Electronic copies of the teen-produced comic book may be requested by emailing email@example.com.
Norris has no plans to slow down, and sees the comic book classes as a natural extension of what a lot of young people like to do with their time.
"I guess it's what you would call the nerd-geek culture. If you like comic books, chances are that you like video games, movies, fantasy, sci-fi, you've read Lord of the Rings and Stephen King," Norris said. "There's this great common ground between us because that interest never dies."