Prisoner of Love: Why Matt Silady Went to Jail for His Art

Matt Silady loves teaching, storytelling, and drawing. And as CCA's unofficial "Professor of Comics," he gets to do all three every day. Silady's passion for his job is infectious. It is truly a calling, and it explains why every fall and spring semester course he's ever taught as part of both the college's undergraduate Writing and Literature Program and the MFA Program in Writing has been full to capacity.

"Any day that I can spread the word and show people what comics can do, it's a good day," admits Silady, whose plans are afoot to greatly expand CCA's graduate and undergrad comics curriculum to offer more opportunities to students interested in graphic storytelling.

Silady readily acknowledges that comics are a medium in flux. Fine artists, writers, and illustrators the world over are pushing the boundaries of what the graphic novel is. And even within his own life and practice, all sorts of everyday interactions add up to a rapidly evolving idea of what the art form is about. "Teaching at CCA -- the daily visual influences around the halls and in the classroom -- has changed my own work dramatically. My students constantly force me to question the basic definition of what comics are. I'm continually inspired by the innovative stuff they are doing."

The Jail Cell Residency at Alter Space

In fact it was a classroom discussion that sparked the idea for his current project, which he describes as a visual essay: "It's academic writing in comic form -- a book that redefines comics in a more expansive and inclusive way."

Silady took a rather unusual "timeout" this summer to focus on the project when he accepted an artist residency in Alter Space, a new art venue on Howard Street between 7th and 8th Streets in San Francisco's South of Market district. The address was previously occupied by the leather and fetish store Stormy Leather, and although every aspect of the cavernous location has been transformed into a bright, multipurpose space for artists to work and exhibit, there's been no attempt to whitewash its history.

Case in point: Silady was the inaugural Jail Cell Resident. His workspace was literally a barred cell, nestled in one corner of what was once the store's BDSM basement dungeon.

"I accepted the invitation to be a resident artist there because teaching can be a very demanding (though rewarding) profession. You're always outside of yourself, immersed in someone else's work. The Jail Cell Residency was a rare opportunity to get centered in a very quiet space. When it's 2 a.m. in the cell, it's actually hard to escape those deep, intimate mental places that you've been trying to access." Plus, the jail cell comes complete with an endless supply of metaphors for the tortured artist.

(The directors of Alter Space are CCA alumni Kristin Olson and Kevin Krueger (both Individualized Major 2011); they launched the project earlier this year. Read the CCA feature story about Alter Space.)

A Surreptitious Graphic Novelist

Silady's teaching career began in the Chicago area, teaching eighth grade in the public school system. "That experience taught me everything I need to know about teaching. I loved it!" His passion for teaching was rivaled only by his love of writing, and in 2003 he moved to California to pursue an MFA at UC Davis.

It was during this time that he began his first graphic novel . . . in secret. "Comics weren't as readily accepted as a legitimate form of writing at that time." He surmised that he'd have to establish himself as a fiction writer before he could get any attention for his graphic work.

In 2007 he published his first graphic novel, The Homeless Channel, a stark critique of media exploitation of the underprivileged. The protagonist is Darcy Shaw, an idealistic television producer learning about her profession, and herself.

The novel was nominated for an Eisner Award (the Academy Awards of comics), and soon thereafter Silady was invited to teach CCA's first comics course. Since then, he's never headed up a class that hasn't been full, or a workshop that wasn't sold out. "There was such a pent-up demand for this art form. I am continually amazed by the sincerity with which the students approach the work. I love it that I've never had to defend comics here."

CCA's comics courses have attracted recent guest graphic artists Dash Shaw and MariNaomi, who visited Silady's classes and worked with his students. In spring 2011, Silady and new faculty member Justin Hall led an ENGAGE at CCA course in which students participated in the editing of the new book No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics (to be published by Fantagraphics this July); the students also assisted in curating and installing a related exhibition at the Cartoon Art Museum, which opened in December 2011.

Read the feature »

Silady made his first appearances at Comic-Con (and other conventions for comics and illustration) four years ago to promote his novel, and now he returns regularly with his students to teach them how to market and promote their work. CCA sponsors a table at the Alternative Press Expo (APE), held annually in San Francisco. And this July, Silady will teach a three-week, six-hour-a-day Graphic Novel Workshop for Bay Area 15-year-olds on CCA's Oakland campus.

"I've never been busier than I am right now. And this is truly a dream job, as it weds the two things I'm most passionate about. I try not to teach 'this is the way to make comics,' but instead enable the students to discover their own personal voices within the context of the medium.

"It's all about storytelling. You can make a great comic with stick figures, and a terrible one with beautifully illustrated panels. Being able to draw is a great tool, but it's just one of many skills you need to juggle."

Silady acknowledges that this is a very exciting time for comics to come into its own as an accepted art form. "This is really just the beginning. Anything you can dream of, you can invent in comics. I'm reveling in it. Comics are cool, and they always will be."