A friend once told me, “your greatest strength is your greatest weakness… and conversely, your greatest weakness can also be your greatest strength.” This is a phrase that has stuck with me for decades, ringing true in both personal and professional settings. I myself was labeled a creative person at an early age.
In middle school I had a strong visual aesthetic, producing compelling photographs with just a tiny 110 camera and no training. I later began writing plays, doing documentary photography at a professional level, and eventually writing comics. But it was a long journey to fully embrace my creative side.
Due to societal pressure, I sought a ‘traditional’ office job. During my school years, creativity was not seen as a gift. It was something that was useful to children but not fully embraced by society, and certainly not something that could be marketed and turned into a million or even billion dollar business.
I feel like that concept has fundamentally changed in the last decade, as the creative industries that were once on the fringe have now become mainstream, and the term entrepreneurship has almost become synonymous with creativity.
Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos built their empires out of ideas, not by climbing the cobwebs of corporate ladders. I also feel that the success of the Marvel films have highlighted the importance of ideas. Creators that hashed Spider-man and the Fantastic Four on newsprint comics fifty years ago were handed measly sums of money on checks that included wording to the tune of, “by signing this check, you hand over the rights to your characters to our company”.
Now, those characters are bringing in a billion dollars of ticket sales. Each. Suddenly, ideas matter. Not that we weren’t taught in grade school that thinkers and inventors like Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton weren’t important people – it’s just that those two didn’t become billionaires out of it. Marvel Studios, under Disney, on the other hand, has harnessed ideas like no one else.
Yet creativity can also be a curse. Someone who is always brainstorming may never find a path forward and stick to it. Someone who is always finding overly creative solutions might never be able stay in the lines and follow the rules – a trait that might find them out of a job or even in jail. Management of a company will always turn to ‘the creatives’ for ideas about how to improve profits, solve production problems, or attract new customers. But the creatives aren’t necessarily the most respected folks in any circles. They are the odd ones, the outcasts, the table full of loners. We go to ‘the creatives’ when we need help, and then abandon them shortly after once our problem is solved. The creators are our saviors, but not always our heroes.
I had a chance to gain some insights about the power of creativity in an interview with Michael S. Bracco, a middle school art teacher of 18 years and creator of the graphic novel series, The Creators.
Talk about your teaching career. How were you drawn to this, and why did you stay?
I have been teaching middle school art in Maryland outside of Baltimore for 18 years. I have worked in the same school since I started and love being so involved with the community. I originally trained to be a teacher oddly enough because I wanted a steady job while I built up my art career. It turns out, being an art educator is something I love and am truly passionate about and don’t know if I’ll ever give up.
In your 18 years of teaching, what did you learn about youth and creativity?
Every time someone sees my student’s work they always say the same thing; “These kids are so talented!” The biggest myth I try and overcome in the art room is that art is a “talent”, a magical gift you are either born with or without. There are of course, truly talented people out there but they are one in a million.
I watch my students improve because of their hard work, open mindedness, and sense of artistic community. I’ve learned that throwing the word talent around actually makes kids feel like the idea of being a great artist is overwhelming and insurmountable.
I have also learned that when you give kids the technical skills and tricks, the techniques for creative thinking and artistic problem solving, and help them feel intrinsic to building a small but strong art community in the classroom, that they make incredibly impressive and socially relevant work, even in middle school.
What did your students teach you?
More than anything they have taught me to be reflective. I always have to reflect on my teaching skills and lessons, making sure that my delivery is clear and engaging, as well as how I treat them with the same respect, patience and empathy I want people to treat me with.
Talk about what you notice about today’s youth. How are they different from your generation?
Everything is different and nothing has changed. In some ways I find that kids are so much more tolerant and kind to each other. They are so much more open to people’s different cultures, expressions, and ways of life in general.
I’m forty and when I was in middle school (which I still consider my worst 3 years), any hint of a difference and you were a target. That said I do notice that kids can still find ways to be very cruel to each other.
What is the greatest challenge facing teens these days? How do they overcome the challenge?
In middle school, kids are trying for the first time to define who they are as young adults and they are constantly unsure of who they are, and wondering how they are seen, and scared of how they are being assessed by their peers, their parents, and their teachers.
On top of that so many of them deal with anxiety, bullying, rough home lives, etc. I mean, the list goes on and on and the whole time they are always having to do what they are told. I think the entire experience of being young is a huge challenge, but if you can find a way to make it through it and figure out who you are and who you want to be, then the hard times will be worth it.
Talk about The Creators. When was it published? What is the comic about?
The Creators, which I have been self-publishing since 2012, is a graphic novel series about a wave in evolution that gives a small population of young people, scattered across the globe, the ability to literally bring their imaginations to life through their artwork.
This power has the potential to be amazing and world changing, however, it’s a power that is fueled by one’s emotional state, so if a creator goes through something traumatic or if their power is met with fear or violence, it can come out in horrific and violent ways.
The Creators explores the journey of these young people as they try and be a positive force on a world that fears their differences
What led you to make The Creators?
I got the idea for The Creators in 2012 when I found out I was going to be a father. I was going through my old children’s books trying to find one’s I’d want to share with my daughter and I found an old copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon.
It’s a simple but wonderful book about a boy sitting bored in his room with nothing to do so he takes a purple crayon and draws a window on the wall, then he crawls through the window he drew and enters a magical world that he creates as he goes. I loved the book as a kid but my adult brain went crazy thinking about what would happen in the real world if young people’s imaginations started sprouting forth from their artwork and the story sprang from there.
How have audiences reacted to it?
I have been absolutely blown away by people’s response to The Creators over the years. Some people just enjoy the sci-fi and horror elements in both the writing and illustrations, but what really is amazing to me is how many people have really connected with the themes of the book.
The book has always been a way for me to talk about our attitudes about mental health, special education and art education, and when that’s the part that a reader connects with, well, there’s nothing like it.
Where is The Creators going? What are your plans for the series?
Right now I am working on the 3rd and final volume of The Creators, which will wrap up the story and a decade of my life. I can’t believe I’ve been working on this for so long but it has been a labour of love.
From there I am wide open to invest the next decade of my life into something new, whatever the hell that may be!
Follow The Creators on http://creatorscomic.com
Michael S. Bracco teaches art full time to middle school students and lives in Baltimore with his wife, Shawna, his daughter, Amelia and his cats, Bowie and Stranger. Michael is the artist and writer of the NOVO series and has also authored and illustrated the all ages sci-fi tale, ADAM WRECK. Alongside his comic work, Michael owns and operates SPAGHETTI KISS (spaghettikiss.com), a craft company showcasing hand screened apparel featuring Michael’s original science fiction and fantasy illustration.
Damian Wampler is a graphic novel writer as well as a US diplomat. His background in photography and writing plays paved the way for a transition to writing comics when his day job did not allow him to work in theater or run around with a camera as much as he used to. He is the author of two graphic novels and several short comics, and is currently based in Moscow with his family.