Wacom has exhibited at San Diego Comic Con for many years, and we’ve had the privilege of being located adjacent to Artist’s Alley, where we can overlook the booths of artists displaying all the amazing art they have created. One particular artist, Ethan Castillo, caught our eye because of his talent, enthusiasm and youth. Now at the ripe old age of 14, Ethan is still exhibiting at various comic cons and always drops by the Wacom booth to check out what’s new. At home, Ethan uses a Wacom Cintiq Pro 16 and Photoshop to create his personal style of Spiderman fan art.
The following story is excerpted, and slightly modified, from this article originally published by The San Francisco Chronicle in September 2017. The story was written by the Chronicle’s pop culture critic, Peter Hartlaub.
Ethan Castillo surrounds himself in Spider-Man.
The friendly neighbourhood superhero is on the 13-year-old’s T-shirt and in framed comic art drawings on the walls in his room at his South Bay home. And what he doesn’t get from other artists he has learned to make for himself — professional-looking artwork that fills portfolio books.
“As a little kid, I don’t know why I liked him. Now, I know it’s probably because he’s the most relatable character to everybody,” Ethan explains. “He’s every single teenager, having to go through life with problems, trying to figure out who they are.”
Ethan is the prodigious extreme. He has been making artwork alongside adults since he was in third grade, and has had a booth in the Artist Alley at both the San Diego and San Francisco Comic Cons.
But he reflects a change that seemed impossible even a generation ago. Where parents were burning their children’s comic books in the late 1940s, pursuit of comic art is becoming as accessible for young people as basketball, music or any other extracurricular activity.
James Sime, owner of Isotope Comics in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, says that both the market for young adult comics and the opportunities for child artists to create have exploded since he opened his shop in 2001.
“Now it seems like all the kids that come in are working on comics,” says Sime, who maintains a shelf for self-published books by young creators. “I know a transgender (boy), about 11 years old, who is working on a comic about being a transgender 11-year-old, which is mind-blowing. I can’t wait.”
Nonprofits, including 826 Valencia and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, offer comic art programs and mentors for young artists. California College for the Arts in San Francisco offers a master’s degree in comics.
Lisa Brown, author and cartoonist on the 826 Valencia board of directors, is thrilled to see comics gain cultural influence, including gradual acceptance as a literary teaching tool.
“I do think that kids benefit from the structure of comics,” says Brown, who has built an eclectic bibliography of graphic novels on her own and with others, including her husband, Daniel Handler. “I think we have a very visual world, and they’re absorbing a lot of information that’s nonlinear and sequential, and I think that it’s just a really great way to introduce books and reading — especially for kids who are different learners.”
Ethan breaks all of the old stereotypes of the comic book lover as a loner, or an outcast or hooligan. His father, John Castillo, says a kindergarten-age visual learning breakthrough propelled Ethan into a love of art. While visiting a comic book convention at age 8, he asked if he could sit at a table like the professional Marvel and DC Comics artists and show his work.
“I asked, ‘Can I draw like these people here?’” Ethan remembers. His dad “didn’t know what to say.”
During his first few years, he met some of his favourite artists, including Marvel Comic creative head Joe Quesada, who left a note, “Can’t wait until you work for us,” on Ethan’s website (www.ethancastillo.com).
The teen engages thoughtfully in conversation, on subjects in and out of comic art. His biggest quirk is the occasional detour into cinematic flourishes — as he does when asked what advice he’d give to other young creators.
“I’m breaking the fourth wall here,” he says, staring deeper into a video camera. “You have to love it. For me, I love art — that’s why I spend so much time drawing. I know this is something I want to do in the future.”
The public view of comic art has come a long way from 1948 and 1949, when schoolchildren in Binghampton, N.Y., and Spencer, W.Va., were encouraged to burn thousands of comic books in a schoolyard bonfire, and their parents were asked to boycott stores that sold them.
Comic history includes many artistic milestones on the way to artistic legitimacy. Brown points to the publication of “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
But the Internet, social media and culture of more intimate sharing may be fueling the most change for young artists.
“You don’t need permission from a publisher, or even the work that goes into making a zine on your own,” says Brian Hibbs, who runs a graphic novel club for children from his Comix Experience store on Divisidero Street in San Francisco. “Because of things like Tumblr, there are whole communities now if you’re an amateur artist and want to put things out there and get feedback.”
That feedback is one of the potential pitfalls for young artists, who are vulnerable to discover, before their peers, that the Internet can be a very cruel place. John Castillo and his wife monitor feedback and comments, and don’t reveal Ethan’s school or his city of residence. Ethan has had an Instagram account since he was 9 years old, but still doesn’t have direct access to it.
“That’s what’s a little dodgy,” John Castillo admits. “We’ve had other artists who say, ‘Ethan, the content on my social media account is not age appropriate, so I’m going to have to block you. But good luck with your work!’”
Another reality check for young creators is the relatively slim chances of fame and fortune. As Sime says, “Comics are super easy to break into, but it’s super hard to feed a family off of it.”
As for whether making comics is good for your child in the long run? Comic store owner Hibbs, whose 15-year-old son has been drawing comics since early childhood, doesn’t see any negatives.
“Art is something you make with your head and your heart. What’s the downside of that?” Hibbs says. “I would always say encourage kids to express themselves. It’s a good skill for people to have in their life in general, and a good way for people to get things out that otherwise might consume them. I think it makes better human beings in the long run.”