The Superhero Outside the Pages: LAB Comics Club Camp

Pittsburgh Youth Media reporter Ananya Cleetus visited The LAB's Comic Club Camp, armed with her lifelong passion for comics to get the scoop.

As I child, I’ve always adored reading comics. Whether it was opening up the newest Tintin comic book or simply rediscovering an old Batman edition, I seem to have spent most of my childhood with my nose buried in some comic book. And it didn’t begin with me. My father also had fostered a love for cartoons at an early age, just like his own father before him. In fact, my father was so fond of comics that he refused to part with them, even as he grew up. He’s currently fulfilling his passion as a cartoonist and artist, publishing his own cartoon books for others for other to enjoy. Comics has basically always been a part of my family. So, you can only imagine the grin on my face when I walked into the Literary Arts Boom (LAB) Comic Club Camp.

The Comic Club Camp is a week long camp that ran August 5th through 9th at Assemble, a community space for arts and technology, located at 5125 Penn Avenue. The Comics Camp, an extension of LAB’s usual Comics Club, is intended for children from 8 to12 who, well, like to have fun. These Comics Club programs have been conducted throughout the year at a variety of locations, such as local libraries, schools and other public venues. Comics Camp is structured in relatively the same way, ending the session with a publication of a book featuring the art of the camp’s participants. This is the first year that the Comics Club has been offered as a summer camp…but what better way to beat the heat than comics?

Juan Fernández working with children to create collage comics from cut-up magazines.

Juan Fernández working with children to create collage comics from cut-up magazines.

The goal of LAB programs are to develop literary skills at a young age through the fostering of storytelling, reading and writing, and according to Comics Club Camp lead facilitator Juan Fernández, the camp does just that.  Mr. Fernández, a graduate of  Carnegie Mellon is currently pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. Having taught comics before in Homestead and other locations, he understands the importance of comics and the impact they have on children. “Comics allow children to gain a visual literacy, something crucial as they progress towards becoming a prose reader.”, he says. To him, cartoons offer a less-structured view of literature and a creative way of learning. They make the act of holding a book feel more natural, without overwhelming young readers. He explains how children, especially at an early age, often struggle with reading and writing, especially with the given obstacles in their schooling system and communities. Comics, however, enable them to tell stories at an early age and communicate in their own personal way. Much like advanced books, comics have the same notion of a beginning and ending, but without the sea of words. Even with a limited knowledge of English, a reader can follow and understand a story through the use of pictures and visual storytelling.  Mr. Fernández can connect to some of these experience, since his first language was actually Spanish. He recalls the learning process when he tried to learn English, and it gives him insight into the development of reading and writing skills in children.

He adds, “not only do comics promote literacy and basic skills in children, but they also nurture creativity and personal expression.” Children like to share and express themselves; they like to let their personality shine through in their work. Using a variety of mediums, campers at the Comics Club Camp were able to do just that. Whether through collages or drawings, flipbooks or skateboards, the kids were able to use comics and cartoons to show off who they are and what they enjoy. They created personal pieces as well as collaborative comics, where each child had to write a scene to advance the group story. They were allowed to use any tools they wanted:  pencils, markers, magazines, stamps, stickers, you name it. “In a camp like this, the kids are given free rein. They can draw, write, do basically whatever they want.” boasts Fernández. He’s proud of the fact that these kids get the freedom to enjoy themselves through the art in any way they can.

Fernández has every reason to be proud. The kids at Comics Club Camp get to be themselves while creating and using one of the most beloved forms of literature and art ever created: comics. In the short time I was there, I got to see numerous different styles and mediums, each unique in its own way. Sean’s personalized skateboard is covered in doodles, so he can ride his art everywhere he goes. Liam’s flipbooks, “The Adventures of Stupid Man Vol.1 & 2” are  sure to become a whole series of humorous books, hopefully being published some day. Layla’s Crazy Things Collage, made of cut up images from the latest National Geographic as well as other magazines, is inspired by personal anecdotes and serves as a reminder of her wonderful experiences at camp. Through the LAB Comics Club Camp, these children have all found a way to be themselves while still gaining necessary skills in communication. They have found a way to learn and have fun, the same way I did, the same way my father did, and his father before him — and the same way children and adults alike have been doing for ages — by reading comics.

For samples of some of their artwork, visit

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Published August 13, 2013