ALPHA: Abidjan to Paris, -a graphic novel

The landscape of graphic novels is as vast as the Sahara. ALPHA follows an African refugee on a tortuous journey across that very desert. The story is by Bessora, a French author of African and European ancestry. French illustrator Barroux’s  lush ink wash drawings bring an immediacy to the journey.


Alpha, a carpenter, is compelled to migrate North. He leaves his home in Cote D’Ivoire. There is nothing there for him. His wife and child have already gone ahead. He holds out hope that he may find them en route or in Paris.

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I read Alpha in an hour. The images flew by, – close-ups, followed by stark landscapes. I’ve traveled a bit with a sketchbook in Africa. The mark making in this book sometimes feels raw, but the details ring true, as if we are looking over Alpha’s shoulder into his personal sketchbook.

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Simple declarative sentences glide like subtitles below the art. The handwritten text takes a bit longer to read than a text font might, but it fits Alpha’s determined voice. He muses, “I never imagined Africa could be so vast. People always say ‘Africa’ as if it is a tiny country. They’ve got no idea.”walk.jpg

The journey of this publication is nearly as remarkable as the journey in the book. Alpha was first published in French by Gallimard, Paris, 2014. It won recognition from Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International. In 2016 it was translated into English by Sarah Ardizonne, published by The Bucket List, Edinburgh, Scotland. Bellevue Literary Press, NYC, has now published the U.S edition with help from NEH and the NY State Council on the Arts. Scan7.jpeg

The French Comics Association gave me a review copy of Alpha at the American Library Association Convention in New Orleans. The French Comics Association is a cultural enterprise supported by the French Embassy and a consortium of French and Belgian publishers. Someone once told me the organization was created in response to the growing influence of manga comics in the U.S. and Europe. That is surely an oversimplification of their mission, but they are doing important work.

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The character Alpha, may be fictional, or perhaps a composite of many individuals. Nevertheless, his tale of smugglers, fake passports, wasted bribes, and desperate migration is happening today. Alpha is a story worth sharing. I will gift my review copy to Dr. Steve Schnell, a Kutztown University geography prof who is writing a college course, “Exploring Place through Comics and Graphic Novels.”  – Imagine that! And I will ask my university’s Rohrbach Library to order a  copy. Great graphic novels, like great novels, can spread the gift of empathy.


What’s SpongeBob Really Like?

SpongeBob© Copyright 1999 Viacom International Inc.

“He is much more multidimensional than I expected!”

Amanda Geisinger knows SpongeBob better than most of us. She designs the Official SpongeBob website.

Amanda’s job title is “Web Designer” at Nickelodeon’s “” She stopped by the Communication Design Dept. last week on a rainy Friday. Originally from Stowe, PA, she graduated from KU in 2008 and gave one of the most memorable commencement addresses ever. During her speech she spoke about being a stellar art student in high school. Her art teachers and guidance counselors advised her against KU, saying, “You’re so good! Why aren’t you applying to a real art school? (Alas, some high schools are biased against state universities.)

Today Amanda has her dream job. She has a Manhattan skyscraper office on the 33rd floor with a Hudson River view. Her high school teachers were right about one thing; she is good. (So is KU’s Communication Design program.)

from Amanda Makes Things © 2010 Amanda Geisinger

Amanda’s Mom always asks her what she does, so she created a blog called Amanda Makes Things. It is filled with quirky personal cartoons, sketches and photos of New York City. Amanda likes WordPress, the same blogging tool we use here. Though she does websites for a living, she likes the simplicity of WordPress during her leisure time.

Originally Amanda got to Nickelodeon via an internship she found herself. When she first got the internship, she knew nobody in New York City. Illustrator Brian Selznick was visiting KU just before she moved to the city. Amanda asked him for housing advice and he actually hooked her up with a sublet in hip Williamsburg. After the internship, she got hired by Nickelodeon Magazine. When that magazine shut down, she says it was traumatic, but she landed on her feet at the website,

At Nickelodeon magazine she was the “Comics Designer,” and worked with famous artists including Jeff Kinney, creator of the Wimpy Kid. She has worked with many famous cartoon characters. I asked her, “What is SpongeBob Squarepants really like?”

SpongeBob© Copyright 1999 Viacom International Inc.

“He is much more multidimensional than I expected. One of my jobs at was to watch every SpongeBob episode from the last ten years to select screen grabs for the website. So, I’ve seen a lot of different sides of SpongeBob. He’s great to work with.” She recently designed the SpongeBob Mystery page in two days.

Only a select group of approved illustrators are permitted to draw SpongeBob, but Amanda is allowed to design using their approved artwork. An example being this SpongBob button:

Advice for students? Amanda: “Figure out exactly where you want to go. Go for your dream internship. It worked for me! It can happen, because they don’t have to pay you. Try to work for free after you graduate and they will think you’re crazy.”

I asked Amanda for three pieces of advice for illustrators. Number one: “You absolutely need a web site. It doesn’t have to be fancy. At the magazine we never looked at an illustrator without a website, and for each job we looked at hundreds of illustrators. Sites need to be simple to navigate.” Amanda says it is best to avoid using Flash, the Adobe software which doesn’t allow “grabbable” images. Amanda explains she often needed to grab files to share with an art director.

Number two piece of advice: “Don’t underestimate old-fashioned forms of contact. Good postcards, for example, are keepers. Just make sure to have a web address on the postcard.”

Number three: “Location doesn’t matter as much as it used to, however, it is good to be in the same time zone as the client.” She has worked with illustrators from Europe and Asia, but illustrators in the same time zone have one small advantage, – art directors know when they should be awake. So, wake up, illustrators!

UPDATE: Since SpongeBob gets so much interest, I contacted Robert Dress, a freelance illustrator for several SpongeBob books. Read more here.