By Stefanie Jackson – Nandua Middle School’s Comics for Cancer raised a record-breaking $1,300 for the American Cancer Society this year, all from hand-drawn, photocopied comics made by students and sold for $3 apiece.
“It was done out of love,” said English teacher Matt Bell, who began Comics for Cancer and recently partnered with art teacher Sarah Clark to give the project its most successful year to date.
The idea for Comics for Cancer came to Bell about four years ago when he had students create comics as a way of learning plot elements such as rising and falling action.
Both Bell’s father and best friend were battling cancer then, and Bell was aware that many other teachers, staff, and students had friends and family who had suffered from cancer.
Bell got permission from his principal to sell the comics at lunch to support cancer research, and Comics for Cancer got its start.
Clark was “wowed” when she learned about Comics for Cancer and “breathed a huge breath of life into the program,” Bell said.
This year marked the first time students used digital layouts in their comic creations. They used Google Slides to lay out the stories, typed the narratives and dialogues, printed out the pages, and added the illustrations by hand.
Clark created an online store using www.weebly.com to give the students a “realistic publishing experience,” Bell said.
In addition to showing support to families affected by cancer, another “blessing” of the Comics for Cancer program is giving students opportunities to explore their talents and be inspired by the work and success of other youth.
Bell acknowledges the importance of preparing students for the Standards of Learning or SOL tests, but he also believes “our students are more gifted beyond the multiple-choice realm.”
He attended his first Comic Con a couple years ago in Ocean City, Md., where he met Bryce Bullock, who is now around 12 or 13 years old and runs his own publishing company, through which he produces and sells professionally printed and bound comic books that wrote.
Bryce likely drew some inspiration from his father, artist Demitrius Bullock, when Bryce began making comics around age 8 or 9.
Bell was impressed with how Bryce not only created his own comics but actively engaged Comic Con attendees and sold his product.
Bell attempted to arrange for Bryce and his dad to visit Nandua Middle School, but it would have cost $2,000, and Bell was unable to obtain the funds.
However, Bell and Clark met with the Bullock family via Zoom video conference this year, and they recorded it to share with students for years to come.
Comics for Cancer this year provided an outlet for students struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic, Bell said.
Kids have been stuck at home, closed off from other people, looking for some way to express themselves, he said. Comics for Cancer helped to fill that need.
Comics for Cancer provides an outlet for self-expression but also presents the middle school students with a challenge: how they can address relevant issues through their art while keeping the content appropriate.
The comics may not contain adult themes, weapons, vulgar language, or sex, Bell said.
Students may go to English or history class and learn about Edgar Allan Poe, the Holocaust, or Emmett Till (a Black teenager who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a White woman). However, they may not depict mature themes in their comics, Bell said.
It’s a challenge for students to create something “powerful and impactful” while censoring the material. They have to learn to stay within the “fine line” of what is appropriate for a school setting, Bell said.
The characters in the comics can be original or based off existing comic or cartoon characters, who go on adventures from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Nandua Middle School students voted for three Artists’ Choice Award-winning comics, which were: “Kenny Koala” by Virginia Tyler, first place; “Brave” by Vanessa Lopez, second place; and “The Cross Over” by Camden Lewis, third place.
Comics for Cancer was promoted heavily this year through letters to parents, emails to teachers, and “commercials” Bell did during morning announcements, he said.
Nandua Middle School Principal John Killmon also was very supportive of the project, Bell said.
The project reached families who have been affected by cancer on the Eastern Shore and beyond. Bell was sent a letter of appreciation from a man in Texas, whose grandson participated in the Comics for Cancer program. The boy never met his grandmother, who died from cancer.
Bell called the program an answer to the question, “How can we do something bigger for humanity out of the skills and powers we do have?”
The comics were showcased in the school’s entrance hall throughout March, which was Youth Art Month.
Melissa Rolloson, an Accomack schools technology specialist, bought a copy of every comic and had each student sign his or her work to be placed into a permanently bound collection.
Rolloson and Nandua Middle School librarian Mary Margaret Browning each donated $100 toward the binding of the comic collection, Bell said.
The students felt like “real authors,” he said.
Clark was grateful to everyone at Nandua Middle School for the “tremendous support,” she wrote in an email.
“Comics for Cancer gave my students the opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves. It is important that my students participate in meaningful and impactful opportunities throughout their middle school career,” wrote Clark, who said she is already looking forward to next year’s program.