Drawing lessons from the UM-Dearborn classroom

March 11, 2024

Artist and 2006 CASL alum Dave Acosta returned to campus to talk with students about his professional career in comics and the craft of storytelling.

Graphic of Dave Acosta, 2006 CASL alum and comic artist
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Despite the explosion in popularity of comics and graphic novels both as a form of entertainment and as a medium for creators to tell engrossing stories in any genre, there persists a number of myths and misconceptions about how comics are created, and what the minds behind your favorite heroes actually do to bring them to life on the page. Artist Dave Acosta built a professional career doing what he loves starting from his time at University of Michigan-Dearborn -- not by studying art, but by learning how stories are made.

Raw drawing of Red Sonja and the Immortals by Dave Acosta, 2006 CASL grad
"Immortal Red Sonja" cover art by Dave Acosta

Acosta graduated from UM-Dearborn in 2006 with a degree in English literature. While some may be surprised he did not focus on art in college, Acosta says his education was crucial to his career as an illustrator. "When you're doing comics, the emphasis is on storytelling," he says. "You'd think it's all about drawing, but that's only one part of it and not even the most important part. You don't need to be a master illustrator to be a comic strip or comic book artist, but you need to have the storytelling skills."

As part of his storytelling curriculum, Acosta says he also took a lot of film classes at UM-Dearborn and came to see comic book scripts as akin to screenplays. "I don't think readers understand this because when they see the credits on a comic book, the writer comes first and then the penciler. So they kind of attribute it like a novel: the writer is the author, and then the artist is just drawing it. But in truth, it's more like 'screenplay by so and so, directed by Steven Spielberg.'"

"I use those skills every day, what I learned in the film and then the English lit," Acosta says. There is a lot of storytelling the artist brings to a comic that is not in the script, he says, including body language, how a character uses props, and how the characters are positioned in relation to each other. "That's part of the visual storytelling language that the penciler has to do," he says. "And I learned all of that at UM-Dearborn."

He also notes that even though he might have loved to study art, many of his friends who attended art school ended up unsatisfied because at the time comics were not a respected medium and instructors would not accept comics artwork for assignments. Now, UM-Dearborn and other colleges and universities have curriculum focused on graphic novels, providing students a broader range of opportunities to study the craft of comics.

Throughout his professional career, Acosta has enjoyed working with a number of classic characters, including ElviraThe Shadow and Twilight Zone. He says the key to success in bringing well-known and beloved characters to life is working with good collaborators, praising David Avallone, the writer of these series, as a great partner. "His dad was a pulp writer, so he just has an encyclopedic knowledge of these characters."

"And it is fun to finally do a property that my dad knows," Acosta quips.

Recently, Acosta returned to the UM-Dearborn campus for a panel discussion with UM-Ann Arbor alum Saladin Ahmed, a prominent sci-fi author who has more recently found acclaim writing Marvel series including "Miles Morales: Spider-Man" and "Daredevil." Acosta and Ahmed co-created the Kickstarter-funded graphic novel "Dragon" and the sci-fi miniseries "TerrorWar," the concluding issue of which is published in February by Image Comics. 

"I was so happy to come in and speak to the classes, because it's just amazing to talk to young people that are interested in the craft and have great questions," Acosta says. While fans at comic conventions tend to ask about specific storylines and characters, or how to break into the industry, the audience at UM-Dearborn wanted to discuss technique and how to apply the skills they're learning to graphic novels. "It's really cool to see the culture on campus embracing comics and appreciating comics as a visual storytelling medium."

Article by Shaun Manning