UPDATED 5/23: Fantagraphics and Woodruff have responded to the contriversy with a statement. Scroll down to read.
Controversy erupted on Twitter over the weekend concerning the four Eisner nominations for Thomas Woodruff’s Francis Rothbart! The Tale of a Fastidious Feral,published by Fantagraphics. Woodruff, the retired head of the illustration and cartooning departments at SVA, was nominated for Best Graphic Album- New, Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art), Best Lettering and Best Publication Design, tying him for second on the list of most nominations, after Zoe Thorogood.
The controversy spread among former SVA students, who alleged that his teaching methods were unnecessarily harsh, and included inappropriate overtones of sexism and racism. In addition, it was claimed Woodruff had consistently looked down on the cartooning students – making the acclaim over what Woodruff called a “graphic opera” a bit hypocritical.
A second wave of controversy spread over the seeming cultural appropriation of the $75 book – which follows a rather Mowgli/Tarzan-like narrative about an orphaned child, seemingly of South Asian heritage, who goes feral and is raised with indigenous trappings – while also scaring the wildlife with erotic urges. According to the Publishers Weekly review “This grotesque-erotic epic will call to curious and particular collectors, while raising eyebrows and questions about the boundaries of art publishing.”
[Note: I originally wrote that the child was white, based on the name Francis Rothbart and a description of the story as being about a downed ballooning family, making it sound like some kind of “white savior” trope, but as mentioned here, Francis is definitely brown. My apologies.]
The charges of cultural appropriation also led to scrutiny over the makeup of this year’s Eisner judges: a laudable but far from diverse group.
The logline for Francis Rothbart reveals an eccentric narrative, and the visuals are undeniably detailed and lush. It was reportedly a passion project for Woodruff for a decade.
Francis Rothbart! follows a feral child who is raised by magpies and other creatures and is repeatedly struck by lightning. Because of the phenomena, the child develops eccentric talents, which he then abuses, leading to his ultimate destruction by the same natural world that once nurtured him. Written mostly in rhymed verse and lushly drawn and painted, each scene in Francis’s picaresque saga is a verbal and visual feast that transport the reader to a mythical pastoral world. Thomas Woodruff’s imagery recalls the fictive gardens of a paradise lost that echoes somewhere deep in all our souls. Woodruff’s debut book is a “graphic opera” unlike anything ever created, a tour de force of words and images in harmony that will be one of the most talked-about books of the decade.
Among the charges against Woodruff from his former students: making a painting of Donald Trump from Woodruff’s own feces, and then using the school scanner to make a scan…and asking students to clear up the machine after him. This painting definitely exists:
From the new issue of WW3: Portrait of Potus in Poop. Yes, artist Thomas Woodruff has found the perfect form to fit the man. Time to clean up this Sh$%t!
Release party for the issue Tuesday Dec 5th details here: https://t.co/7vy0DydZEl
Bring your pooper-scoopers! pic.twitter.com/hJJIyibSmG
— Peter Kuper (@PKuperArt) December 1, 2017
Another former student alleged that during a review of a “Lolita” assignment, Woodruff once asked a female junior if she had ever had sex “because this is the most sexless Lolita I’ve ever seen.”
A former student who was the admissions counselor for the illustration and cartooning departments from 2016 – 2020 alleges a continual drip of racist comments, including:
All female Chinese students that are coming into our program being lesbians.
Being told to not include certain nationalities or to limit said nationalities on the international student scholarship lists that he reviewed because of his racist views.
If I tried to say anything, it was my word against his. Me, who is a perceived failure to him because I’m not a practicing illustrator. Versus him, who makes “graphic operas” and is the kind of showboat that makes the school and department look “cool”.
Multiple people attempted to escalate their concerns about him (on the admin side), all to fall on deaf ears.
Another rather bizarre comment attributed to Woodruff was when a student ask why there were no “business classes for the Comics major.”
Illustration had a business class! Animation had two! Why not Comics? He told me he didn’t want the students to become too “business savvy” and “lose their artistic soul.”
Complaints about Woodruff’s methods and reported dismissive attitude about the cartooning department can be found in a couple of threads by former SVA students.
Thomas Woodruff sneered at, neglected, and often outright abused the students in the SVA Cartooning department he chaired. Then he figured out he could make a “visual opera” about a “feral child” (brown, of course) and charge $75, and he’s nominated for four Eisners.
— Jeɳɳα Kαss (@JennaKassArt) May 19, 2023
Wild to see my old college department chair who vocally and obviously despised comics, considered them “low art” and made comics student’s lives complete hell for decades get Eisner nominated four times over for his first graphic novel. Oh, sorry, “graphic opera”.
— Kendra “Kenny” The Kid (@kendrawcandraw) May 19, 2023
The School of Visual Arts (SVA) is one of the most prestigious art schools in America, and had turned out an immense number of cartoonists, illustrators, filmmakers, graphic designers, and animators since it was founded by Silas H. Rhodes and Burne Hogarth in 1947. An extremely partial list of alumni includes Raina Telgemeier, Kyle Baker, Rebecca Sugar, Bill Plympton, James Jean, Dash Shaw, Yuko Shimizu, Molly Ostertag, David La Chapelle and dozens and dozens more.
Woodruff was named head of the Illustration and Cartooning departments at SVA in 2000, and supervised both for 20 years before retiring in 2021, according to this NY Times profile. The cartooning department had an associate head, Keith Mayerson, for a period during that time. The current associate head is cartoonist Jason Little, who works under Viktor Koen, current Chair of Illustration and Comics.
The controversy has been bubbling on social media all weekend, combining many threads about art school, the illustration profession, comics awards, representation, the place of manga in American comics and more. Neither the Eisners, Woodruff nor Fantagraphics have made a formal statement as we write this. One of the Eisner judges wrote a blog post about the controversy but quickly deleted it.
It is extremely rare for an Eisner nomination to be withdrawn, and the cases we recall were over technical issues. Judges are instructed to judge the work and not the creator, and have generally adhered to that policy.
UPDATED: After reaching out, we received statements from both, via Fantagraphics’ publicist. We have elided a word in Woodruff’s response, otherwise running them as received.
Francis Rothbart! is an allegory of an outsider child, who is orphaned in the wild as a toddler. He is different, trying in vain to be accepted by the local townspeople. He is an avatar of innocence, devoid of savagery, attempting to survive. His ethnic origins refer to The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, but Woodruff wanted his character’s personality to appear more gender fluid, with a feminine side. With all his attempts to fit in, his mother-figure is stoned to death by a gang of intolerant thugs; and in the ending sequences, the townsfolk come after him with pitchforks and torches.
In our current culture where the “other” is constantly under attack, and creative, challenging, and underground art is being maligned and banned, this story seems eerily prescient.
From Thomas Woodruff:
This book was carefully made over nearly a decade. It was never made with the intention for accolades, awards, or even an audience. It was made only with love: my love of comics, of drawing, picture-making, storytelling, design, type and letterforms, grand opera, Venetian painting, and heartfelt sentiment. These are themes I have explored for years.
When I took the position of Chair of Illustration and Cartooning in 2000, my dedication to both departments was strong and sincere. The Cartooning department grew from 121 students to 166 students in 2020, the Illustration Department grew from 312 to 746. During my tenure, we presented the students’ best 20 page comics in a large end of the year Junior exhibition. I instituted and oversaw the creation of a full color annual Cartooning Magazine, designed to showcase the impressive work of our Seniors. I worked closely with our library to assemble one of the best Cartooning collections in the country. A Cartoon industry leader referred to the department as the “Harvard of Cartooning” referring to the impressive faculty I assembled over time, and the level of sophistication of our students, (many of them Eisner award winners and nominees, including this year). In working with students, my frank critiques were intended to help them develop keen minds and strong spines.
As a openly gay man in my late sixties, I have been called “f—-t” more times than I would choose to remember, and seen too many die too young during the AIDs epidemic.
In my work as an artist and educator in my over 40 year career, I have attempted to help break and blur some cultural barriers that are still deeply enmeshed within our present day society. Artists must be brave, particularly telling the stories that they need to tell. Francis challenges the torches and pitchforks, he is stronger than the misunderstandings, the bullying, and the hate. I am too!
[This story has been updated to clarify the current structure of the cartoning department under chair Viktor Koen and associate head Jason Little.]