He's an adult, yes, but he's unlike other teachers, they say. "He seems to make a joke out of anything," offers Dylan Kolhoff, 12. "He's a really funny teacher to work with, and he's good at describing everything."
O'Brien shows them scale, placement and overlap, demonstrating sketches of arms throwing baseballs or elbows bent backwards. This is a world of superheroes and wacky animals and space aliens, but these boys are learning not just how to draw but how to build stories around their characters, to tell of fantastical adventures or more earthly concerns like getting teeth pulled or running from tetanus shots.
"We talk about character creation," O'Brien says of his primary classroom principle. "You make a drawing, and you start asking yourself basic questions: Who is this person? What do they like? Who are their friends? There are stories hidden in the characters, and everything rolls off that. It seems to work with the kids pretty well."
As he stands in front of them gesticulating and joking, O'Brien gives off a loopy energy the boys gravitate toward. He's a guy who restores old bicycles and rides a different one to class each day, often lugging a ream of paper to keep students stocked with supplies. He grins until his eyes crinkle, he's highly encouraging and he knows how to draw an action-packed storyboard with a tale that pops off the paper. He understands these kids and relates to them easily, but there's nothing childish about his work or his message. This business of cartooning is serious stuff.
"People say this is not art," O'Brien mock-rants after class. "But it's good not to be art. Then you don't have to worry about artists getting all snooty. It gives you a stealth advantage. Usually when artists start talking about cartooning, they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. Cartooning is strongly narrative. It's not about style, which is a malleable, adaptable thing. This is about building stories."
He's particularly fond of legendary Disney cartoonist Carl Barks, "a good draftsman but a great storyteller, and you didn't realize what he was doing because he was so subtle and simple." And Milton Caniff, who drew "Terry and the Pirates" in the 1930s and later Steve Canyon, "who had these methods of getting high contrast and emphasizing what was important in a story," O'Brien says. Walt Kelly, who created the Pogo strip, is a favorite. "His drawing is beautiful, and the way he structures his stories is fascinating."
"Being a cartoonist is not an easy option," O'Brien says, "and it can be a bit of a struggle, but you can be happy at it. I've managed to fall into a situation in life where I don't make much money, but I'm very, very, very happy. Adults seem to think they should be miserable, that the true sign of being an adult is being miserable all the time. But why?"
O'Brien thought about going to law school for a while, but started drawing seriously when he was about 20, leaving Virginia Commonwealth University a few credits short of graduation. He draws cartoons for television and does prop and storyboard work, and has created drawings for the Smithsonian Institution and several small magazines. "You get your material from what is around you, and I'm constantly plumbing for material," he says. "I have more ideas than the time to draw them. Stuff will rattle around in your brain sometimes for five or ten years before it spills out."
What's spilling out now is a cartoon strip about Richmond City Council. "I've been tinkering with characters for the past week," he says, intrigued by the potential for a good tale of conflict and misadventure. As he reminds his students, "The world is a humorous place, and reality is stranger than any cartoon."
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