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Graphic Novelist Cuts Original Swath Through College

Story posted April 14, 2009

Sam Tung
Sam Tung

There are two kinds of weapons in Sam Tung’s world. One is a three-and-a-half foot long epée sword designed to draw blood. The other is his pen—and it draws comics.

The Bowdoin senior has been cutting an original swath with both since he first transferred to Bowdoin as a sophomore. But figuring out how to hone his weapons took a little doing.

There was no active fencing club when Tung ‘09, a competitive fencer, arrived. Within weeks, he resurrected the defunct Bowdoin Fencing Club, which trained a class of 12 beginners and laid the groundwork for a competitive team.

fencing competition
Tung and members of the Bowdoin Fencing Club at an intercollegiate competition.

Within two years, the team had grown to 25 members and they were competing in United States Fencing Association (USFA) intercollegiate tournaments including The Big One at Mt. Holyoke and New England Championships at Dartmouth.

“As a team, we generally get our clocks cleaned,” says Tung, smiling broadly. “But many students don’t start fencing until they get to Bowdoin. I was proud that we were even able to be there after two years.”

His love of comics pre-dated his obsession with fencing, but being a medium “of the cultural ghetto,” as Tung refers to it jokingly, he didn’t expect Bowdoin to offer him formal instruction in the comic book.

But Tung says he stumbled on pay dirt his first semester at Bowdoin, when he signed up for Liz Muther’s course, Introduction to Literary Methods: Image and Texts. The English professor explored hybrid works of image and text, from illuminated manuscripts to graphic novels. Among the works the class explored was Maus, the Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.

full page from comic
"In third grade I started reading comics," says Tung '09, an English major, "and since then it's just been comics, comics, comics, reading, drawing, drawing." (Featured, a full page from Tung's graphic novel.)

“I never needed convincing that comics are just as interesting and legitimate a medium for storytelling or art as anything else,” says Tung, “but to be in a college class having to analyze or defend them was really cool and exciting for me. That first class I took with Liz was the green light. Once I had that to latch onto, the battle was over. The war? Just beginning.“

Tung was so energized that he began posting a blog about comics on Muther’s class Web site, enthralling his classmates.

“I had no idea it was his dream come true,” laughs Muther. “He just started doing this amazing narrative before us, week by week, as part of his Blackboard postings. He was wonderful. So many students are interested in this stuff and he became their guide.”

Tung next found an unlikely mentor in the form of Writer-in-Residence Anthony Walton, a master of nonfiction with whom he took a course in Nonfiction Literary Narrative.

As Walton laid bare the craft of nonfiction storytelling, Tung soaked up as many details as he could about plot, character, pacing and tried to transpose them to a comic medium. He started showing up regularly at Walton’s office hours—eight o’clock in the morning, no less.

“There are these ones, these students, who are so hungry,” recalls Walton. “Sam would ask me questions about writing, about being a writer. Then he showed me some short graphic things that he had done. He had a great enthusiasm. GREAT enthusiasm. But more than that, I would say, well, if you are thinking of epic graphic storytelling, have you read Joseph Campbell? No? Well don’t you think you ought to? He would come back next week and would have read Hero with a Thousand Faces. That kind of work ethic is always impressive to me.”

Transfer cover
The cover of Tung's graphic memoir, Transfer.

Combining a serious lineup of drawing classes alongside courses for his English major, Tung began to hone his craft in earnest.

Under Walton’s exacting eye, Tung crafted his first fully imagined graphic work, Transfer. It’s the story of Tung’s own struggle to find his place in college—as a fish out of water at a major university who eventually found his way to the more nurturing pond of Bowdoin.

Tung continued his work with Walton over summer 2008 through a Surdna Fellowship, which allowed him to stay at Bowdoin to develop a full-length graphic novel.

Wrought in a clean, high-contrast black-and-white style that sometimes resembles a woodcut, the story is set in the Dustbowl of ‘30s. “It was a strange, uneasy point in American history and kind of a cool retro thing,” notes Tung. “I enjoyed researching it.”

The hero, a former mercenary, and his buddy, have unwittingly been hired to transport what turns out to be a doomsday device. Machine-gun toting bad guys, bent on stealing the goods, unleash on them gunfire and booby traps at every turn.

Comic of fighting
Magnus (foreground), the hero of Tung's as-yet-unnamed epic graphic novel, readies for the fight.

“Magnus is very much in the vein of, oh, Rick in Casablanca, or Clint Eastwood, the hardcore, strong silent guy,” says Tung of his hero. “He’s pretty much unkillable but the way to hurt him is through his heart. When his buddy gets killed, he starts to realize what’s at stake. You start to see what he’s made of.”

Tung drawing
Tung works with his weapon of choice: a fixed-width pen. "I do thumbnails first, everything in miniature," says Tung. "It's tedious, but it helps."

Tung put in 12-hour days, six days a week, producing an average of one page per day. The 60-page enterprise ultimately spilled over into the academic year as an independent study project. (“Did I maybe bite off a little more than I could chew, yes,” says Tung, squinting an eye. “But it was worth it.”)

Watching Tung shade some of the final frames, it is easy to see why he refers to comics as “a partnership between the artist and the reader.”

Closeup of drawing

In a single page, you see the hero wield a sword against a gunner, dance through a hail of bullets, then deliver a killing karate kick to the throat. The tension builds in a series of close-ups that eventually spill into a full frame of fighting. As Tung describes it, he carefully constructs the pacing of the story and development of character by changing the rhythm of visual frames—much as a fencer develops a compound attack to draw multiple reactions from his opponent.

Some of the most important action takes place outside the frames altogether.

“That’s really the magic of comics,” says Tung leaning in to shade a panel. “It’s what makes them different than animation. In between these two panels, there is something that your brain does that fills in the action. It’s very cool the way your imagination does that. It’s what makes comics so intimate.”

If comics have helped Tung blaze new trails at Bowdoin, they may also open up new roads beyond college. Through a connection with Bowdoin alumnus Kary Antholis ’84, who is President of HBO Films, Miniseries, Tung will be interning at HBO after graduation.

“Everything is starting to cross-pollinate,” observes Tung. “Beyond all the film adaptations of comics on the big screen, the guys who started Lost are now writing comics and the guys who were writing comic books are now writing Lost.

“If I could go to Hollywood and get involved in one area, the world would be my oyster. Hey, dreaming, right? But I would rather look back 30 years from now and say, at least I gave it a shot, rather than, ‘I wonder if I could have made it.’ "

En garde world.

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"In between panels, there is something that your brain does that fills in the action. It's very cool the way your imagination does that. It's what makes comics so intimate."
— Sam Tung '09