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Cool Jobs: Bruce Worden, Science Illustrator/Comic Book Creator

Bruce Worden in his studio
Bruce Worden in his studio - Doug Coombe
If you think you don't know Bruce Worden, you're probably wrong. You have possibly walked by his comic books at the Vault of Midnight. Perhaps you admired the panels he designed for the William Street parking garage. Or your kid attends Honeycreek School along with his son and you got to hurl pumpkins with the trebuchet he designed and built for the elementary school's Fall Festival. Or maybe you've seen him and his family on the AAATA posters near the transit center. 
 
Love of public transit might just be in the genes. Bruce's son's first words were "bus." Harrison Worden has loved buses his entire life. A staff member of AAATA volunteered where Bruce's wife worked and learned of their son's interest in buses. When the AAATA needed a family for the billboards, they turned to the Worden family. 
 
Bruce has been in Ann Arbor for a long time. After receiving a B.F.A. from the University of Michigan in scientific illustration, and worked in science museums. He sculpted and worked on exhibit designs before finding his way back to scientific illustration. For the past ten years, he has worked for a biomedical journal called the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Bruce draws the pictures that explain science to people like me who spent biology class writing poetry about nuclear war.
 
In addition to the successful book, Goodnight Keith Moon (a play on the children's book, Goodnight Moon), Bruce has been self-publishing his own comic books set at Woodstock. I chatted with him about how his passions and interests reflect on the city he calls home.  (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
 
So, what is the comic series about?
It's called Woodstalk which is obviously a pun on Woodstock. And so it's zombies at Woodstock. That's basically it. That's all I ever need to say - it's zombies at Woodstock. It's a big story and it's broken up into 32 issues so there's one for every band that played at Woodstock. The third issue just arrived from the printers. 
 
The first issue was done entirely by me. The next two issues have different people doing the inking. (This means that Bruce wrote the comic and sketched it out page by page but someone actually comes in and does the finished artwork based on his sketches). The idea is to make this a collaborative thing, like Woodstock itself. Woodstock had all these different bands playing and I thought it would be great to have a different look for each issue with a whole bunch of different artists.
 
For now, you are self-publishing. Do you intend to continue? What are the pros and cons of self-publishing your work?
This is the year that I am going to decide if I continue to self-publish. I am going to take the three finished comics, go to comic conventions and shop them around to publishers.
 
[Self-publishing] is a big balancing act. The pros are that you will make more money for each issue that you sell; the problem is that you may not sell nearly as many as if a publisher markets it for you. Every minute that I spend marketing is a minute that I don't spend drawing…and every minute that I draw the comic, I'm not on Facebook marketing it. 
 
How do we make comics more inclusive, especially for females? Do you think self-published folks lead the charge on this?
Because it's becoming so much easier to self-publish, I think that we will set the course. Now whether we set the course in the right direction, I don't know. If all we have are teenage boys self-publishing then it might get worse. But there are a lot of good women comic artists out there and there could be more. They will continue to push things in the right direction and will foster an audience of women.  
 
At the same time there have been some explicit statements by the old guard comics industry about the fact that they have no interest in doing things differently. So until the old guard drops away, it is still going to be a hard sell over at Marvel or DC. If they changed a few things, you could argue, they would make even more money but it's a risk and big companies don't like to take risks. 
 
That's my big argument about the publishing industry. I don't see editors being able to take risks with new ideas. History has always been - you pitch a manuscript and they match you up with an illustrator. Editors were able to imagine the finished product as it would fit into their publishing house. You didn't do the whole project first. But now the whole idea with picture books is you have to finish the whole book before you pitch it. 
 
[The publishing industry wants] to see it and say "this looks like it sell X many copies". They just don't want to take the risks. Conversely, the comics industry is much more imaginative and much more willing to take some risks although maybe not with realistically drawn women.
 
How supportive is the local community to the self-published genre?
Oh they're great! The Vault of Midnight is fantastic. They've always been really good about stocking my books…they are very fair about how they pay. I bring in a new book and they say, "Okay, let's put it on the shelf!" They are great people with a whole big section of local stuff. 
 
Overall, do you think our city is art friendly? 
My short answer is no. I don't think that Ann Arbor is art friendly any more. I think it has a history of that but I don't think that we care about it anymore. 
 
I'm a sarcastic person by nature so I could sit back and say everything sucks but I do sit back and I think about how we are the community. We all vote on things and the vote comes out one way and we are getting what we deserve, what we ask for. 
 
I feel like if this is the direction we want to head…if they don't want public art, if all they want are decent roads and fire stations, then that's pathetic. That's the bare minimum that a city needs but if that's the way that we want it, then that's the way that we want it. 
 
We still use that slogan of "doing life different." In 1972 we might have been doing life different but it's no longer true. I think we have a lot of great artists in town but we all move away. It has just recently become a thing in our minds where my wife and I are saying that we aren't sure we want to be part of it. 
 
But one positive art project was your garage art! How did the garage art panels come to happen? 
It's a fantastic story. Basically, Jeff Meyers* (formerly of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission) came to me and said that they [the DDA] wanted to prove they could do a public art project without stringing it out, just get it done efficiently and cheaply - submit a proposal, let's do it! And that's how it happened! 
 
It's been important for me to thank the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) whenever I talk about this project. I dealt with Jeff and Susan [Pollay, Executive Director of the DDA]. Jeff got the ball rolling and Susan was the point person from the DDA. 
 
We treated it like a public art project so I was able to do it the way I wanted to do it. We didn't want to get bogged down in committee meetings about which animals and which colors and which styles…they were trying NOT to do this. I submitted a picture of salamander and they said let's do it. I picked the animals and used my own style.
 
We were hoping in the end that it would get done quickly, efficiently and cheaply and it would be nice enough that everyone would be like 'that looks really good' and it's not controversial and I'm not from out of town and all of those arguments that you hear. Hopefully it's beautiful and it's got a high level of craftsmanship and we do more of it. That's the goal -  that it spurs us to act on more things because we've proven that it can be done properly.
 
You and your family are big supporters of public transit. What are your thoughts on the upcoming millage and the anti-transit campaign?
I have high hopes for the upcoming transit millage, especially when you look at how low the cost would actually be per person. But I don't have high hopes that the increasingly conservative Ann Arbor voters will go for it. The most straightforward answer to why this is is that [the anti-transit folks] are selfish and unimaginative. If they don't use the bus, they don't want to pay for a bus system. They can't imagine something that they don't use could be a benefit to the community. Furthermore, they don't seem to even understand how something that they currently hate could be improved to a point where they would see value in it.
 
Personally I think the AAATA does great work, listens well to the community's needs and responds frequently and effectively to those needs. And anything that helps connect people to resources - be it through public education, public wi-fi infrastructure or public transit - is essential for a modern city. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Ann Arbor wants to be a modern city…at the moment though, I am not convinced.

*Full Disclosure: Jeff Meyers is also the managing editor of Concentrate and friends with Mr. Worden.

Patti Smith is a special education teacher and freelance writer who lives in Ann Arbor and who blogs about beer at www.teacherpatti.com

All photos by Doug Coombe

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