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Arts & Life

This Comic Book's Debut Is Thanks To A Program Bringing Literacy To Boulder Inmates

Ann Marie Awad
Inmate Robert Smith holds a copy of Ghostopolis in class.

At Denver Comic Con, fans will be vying to meet TV and film stars and grabbing titles by their favorite authors and artists. Among all that pop culture mayhem you’ll find a new comic book by a relatively unknown group of creators: inmates at the Boulder County Jail.

A visit to the Boulder County Jail is kind of like how you’d imagine visiting any prison. You run through a security check, you’re issued a badge and shepherded down long, white institutional hallways. The fluorescent lights overhead buzz loudly. Prisoners line up along the halls before being escorted to their next activity.

Seven men in jail-issued khaki shirts are on their way to a classroom, all with graphic novels in their hands. This is the home for a six-week program known as Literacy Education in Adult Detention With Comics. It’s put on by Pop Culture Classroom -- the nonprofit behind the Denver Comic Con.

Dion Harris, the instructor, greets each of the men. Once they’re all settled in, he asks them a question you’re likely to hear at the comic con: If they could have any superpower, what would it be?

"I'm packing my backpack for what I need when I get out of here. Parenting classes, substance abuse counseling, getting a one-on-one therapist, you know what I mean?"

Invisibility. Flying. Telekinesis.

In their perfect world, these men would be a superpowered crime fighting team. Instead, most of these men are awaiting sentencing for all types of convictions. The few who have already been sentenced are counting down the days until they’re transferred to a larger prison. While none of them can fly or teleport, comics will provide an escape.

The day’s assigned reading is Doug TenNaple’s Ghostopolis, a supernatural tale about a terminally ill kid suddenly transported to the spirit world where he finds he has superpowers. The men talk about their favorite parts of the story. Harris asks them what they thought of the villain, Vaugner. He’ll later teach the men to draw villains like him.

The inmates have already read the iconic Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Maus by Art Speigelman, set in Eastern Europe during World War II. The Nazis are depicted as cats, and Jews are drawn as mice. Before that, they read Yummy, by G Neri, an illustrated tale of gang violence set in mid-90s Chicago. None of this is on your average school reading list, but for these inmates, literacy goes hand in hand with art.

Which takes us to the drawing lesson. Harris has them set aside Ghostopolis and hands out sheets of paper. The men are learning how to draw faces in profile. This is so they can eventually make comics of their own.

Credit Ann Marie Awad / KUNC
Dion Harris shows Boulder County Jail inmates how to draw faces in profile.

“I love doing art. Stories. I love to write short stories,” says Tsali McKissick.

At 40, he was sentenced to a short stay in the Boulder County Jail followed by two years of probation. He’s here after a near-violent dispute with his wife, who he’s in the process of divorcing. This marks his third felony conviction.

McKissick is in the jail’s transitions program, which makes classes like this available to inmates. The goal of the program is that from the minute they set foot in the door, they’re preparing to get out.

“I’m packing my backpack for what I need when I get out of here. Parenting classes, substance abuse counseling, getting a one-on-one therapist, you know what I mean?” he says. “Getting ties to the mental health facilities so that they know where I’m at, and so I can always come to them when I need help, so I’m not feeling like I’ve got all this overwhelming pressure, I’m about to bounce, I’m about to just take off and drink, but I have like people I can call. And that’s what transitions helps me with.”

Believe it or not, the comic books in the LEAD program are all part of that. Always a storyteller, with a passion for screenwriting, McKissick holds a degree from CU-Boulder in film studies. He says having a controlled environment to express himself helps him cope with the emotional heavy lifting of preparing for life after jail.

In recent years, he’d moved away from working in film (he was working in the restaurant business when he was convicted), although he’d still take projects on the side. When he gets out, he plans on opening another restaurant.

“I don’t know how easy that’s going to be with a new felony,” he says. “But, stranger things have happened. Look at Martha Stewart.”

The debut issue found at the 2016 Denver Comic Con is the work of LEAD with Comics’ first class. Not only is the class still offered on a rolling basis at the Boulder County Jail, but the positive response has prompted the Sterling Correctional Facility to offer the program as well.

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