Local heroes 2013

By PHILIP EIL  |  April 25, 2013

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COMICS BUILD CHARACTER Mettling and a pair of young artists. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

WALKER METTLING:ART IN ACTION

Their names are Gumball Dude, Couch Robot, Monster Glitter Arms, Ninja Pigs, and Casanova Frankenstein. They come from Marsh Mallow Land, Gotham, the Atlantic Ocean, the jungle, Mars, Hell, and Snakeville. Their powers include teleportation, mind control, turning humans into gold, spraying venom into enemies' eyes, and "supergnawing."

These are just a few of the characters created by young Rhode Islanders under the tutelage of Walker Mettling, founder of the Providence Comics Consortium.

You may have stumbled into a PCC gathering if you've walked into a Providence Community Library branch on a weekday afternoon and seen an energetic man gesticulating excitedly before a group of eight- to-12-year-olds armed with pencils and workbooks. This is the formula PCC has followed since its founding (with the help of a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts grant) in October 2010. Kids enroll in the PCC — free of charge — for a month of twice-weekly after-school workshops. During the sessions they learn about comics-making by filling out character sheets ("Name," "Height," "Weight," "Homebase," "Powers/Abilities," "Weaknesses," etc.), playing sketching games with names like "Face Factory," and brainstorming with visiting artists.

The kids eventually develop characters — Fred the Penguin or Lonely Shoe, for example — and build a comic story around them. Once the workshops are finished, Mettling compiles, prints, binds, and publishes students' work in books that are distributed to the students and filed on the shelves of Providence Community Library branches.

"It isn't that often that kids are actually making art and putting it out into the world — like, way out into the world," Mettling explains, sitting in the living room of his apartment on Providence's West Side. A second-hand color copier the size of a washing machine whirs on the other side of the room, spitting out copies of his latest PCC collection.

But PCC isn't just a way for kids to practice what he describes as a kind of mental yoga; it's also a collaboration with real-life comics artists. PCC participants at, say, the Olneyville or Rochambeau branches of the Providence Community Library will frequently create characters that Mettling — a printmaker and comics artist with indie comics pals across the country — then places in the hands of professional artists as "assignments."

Take the recent PCC project funded by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, for example. RIDOT was interested in educating citizens about new laws that require fastened seat belts at all times in vehicles, so Mettling pitched a series of comics called Providence Car Crash Consortium to help spread the word. Local kids created characters like Anti Carcrash Dog and Bony the Head that were handed off via email to professional artists in Portland, Oregon and New York City.

The results are like no PSA you've ever seen. One strip features an anthropomorphic roll of "CAUTION" tape named Tapey who, after riders start wearing seat belts more frequently, finds himself filing for unemployment and sobbing in his bed at night. Others follow characters like Headless Hula Dancer ("Their was a reckless driver/she loved her dashboard hula girl/and in a crash/they BOTH lost their heads") or offer an Aesop-esque moral: "WEAR YOUR SEAT BELT OR YOU MIGHT LOSE YOUR SOUL TO THE . . . GHOST CAR."

For other projects, PCC has connected kids with Providence musicians. Search "Providence Comics Consortium Zaplight" on YouTube to hear local singer/songwriter Amil Byleckie singing the words from a student's character sheet — "Zap light was born in a cloud as a baby / He grab[b]ed a lightning stone and the lightning stone turned him into a lightning bolt" — over psychedelic, electronic background music.

"In a way it's sort of like a weird public art piece," Mettling says, describing the way PCC connects kids, parents, artists, libraries, and the general public.

Next month, the project will grow even bigger.

Last fall, a RISCA grant allowed Mettling and his project partner Julia Gualtieri to set off on bikes for a series of one-day workshops at libraries in northwest Rhode Island. This May, they plan to hit 15 public libraries in 30 days, from Narragansett to North Providence.

So if you're driving on the state's back roads during the next few weeks, look out for a biking duo with a baby-caddie hitched to one of the bikes filled with workbooks, pens, and pencils. And, for your soul's sake, remember to wear your seat belt.

Learn more about the Providence Comics Consortium on Facebook and at comicsconsortium.blogspot.com and providencecomicsconsortium.tumblr.com.

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