James O’Keefe Comics Contest Tackles History, Humor, and Pain through Art


James O’ Keefe Comic Contest Flyer

Andrea Madison, Staff

Comics, like music, poetry and other forms of self-expression, can reflect one’s values and experiences and offer a platform to share these important qualities, creating a common thread between people from all walks of life. Whether you are a child, teacher, artist or college student, the world of comics can offer something for everyone.

On May 4, 11 students from Diablo Valley College received awards during the 11th annual James O’Keefe Comics Contest. The free event has been organized since 2010 by DVC English professor Adam Bessie and DVC instructor for art and digital media Arthur King, who is an art department instructional assistant as well as the college’s art gallery coordinator. It serves to honor the memory of the late professor James O’Keefe, who founded DVC’s comics program and died in 2008.

A mentor to Bessie and many others, O’Keefe was a beloved English instructor on the college campus who created and taught English 176, The Graphic Novel as Literature. O’Keefe was “all about putting students’ experience at the center of things,” Bessie told The Inquirer in an interview following the awards ceremony. 

The graphic novels course started by O’Keefe reflected the professor’s creative and outspoken nature, and it is in that spirit that the contest carries on, said Bessie. Past contestants have gone on to work in professional careers such as animation. “Comics are a medium,” Bessie said, and are not limited to their associations with childhood.

Bessie said he “fell in love with reading through comics,” noting that some of the best comics are very accessible. He believes this is what makes the art form so powerful.

“Even if you’re not a trained artist, you can draw your feelings — draw your ideas,” he said. “This art form really speaks to the 21st century.” 

The grand prize winner, Emory Cancilla, spoke with The Inquirer a week after the event, discussing their experience with and inspiration for drawing comics. 

“I’ve always been into illustration/drawing most of my life, but it had always been portrait-based,” Cancilla said. By contrast, “this contest was my first time completing a work, and everything before that had been just short scribbles to entertain friends. So, [I’ve been an] artist my whole life but [a] comic artist very recently.” 

Their favorite part about making comics? “What I really love … is how much goes into it,” Cancilla said. “Every aspect of the comic can be used to tell the story, from the borders to the colors… even the smallest detail pushes the story.”

“Most of what inspires my work comes from what’s going on around me… It’s really hard for me to write or make anything that’s based in reality,” they added. “I need something magic or heavily fiction-based to feel inspired enough to do the work.”

The March 2021 murder of London resident Sarah Everard and increasing rates of domestic violence against women inspired Cancilla to draw For Her. “[The piece] comes from that sort of powerlessness felt every time these things get blown up, where women are being disproportionately harmed and there’s really nothing I can do about it,” they said. “So in For Her, she does something about it.”

For Her deals with one girl’s morbid curiosity in researching female murder victims and gory crime scenes on the internet, and pondering the notoriety that male perpetrators receive for their brutal crimes.

For the 2021 comics contest, both organizers said the high quality of the submitted pieces made judging a challenge. According to King, the focus of the competition was storytelling: creating cohesive texts and images that pull the reader into the artist’s story.

The event’s keynote speaker was Bay Area cartoonist and writer Tanna Tucker. Trained as an illustrator and having worked in comics for seven years, Tucker said she was blown away by the contestants’ submissions.

Highlighting the importance of community for comic artists, Tucker said she started her creative career by attending “zinefests,” which allow independent writers, artists and creators to share their work in exhibitions.

Emphasizing the benefits of sharing work and receiving feedback at zinefests, Tucker advised those with aspirations to publish to “[not get] discouraged by rejection. I was rejected tons of times,” she said. 

Tucker explained that her pieces work toward “revealing all sides of history, including what’s obscured,” from the history of Black socialism in America to examining slavery “as a function of political education.”

Tucker’s work for the non-profit magazine The Believer, as well as her 2018 piece for The Nib, a daily newsletter focusing on political and non-fiction comics, displayed her self-described habit of producing art in an effort to work through a historical moment she wants to understand better. The artist also stated her motivation to use comics to interrogate black presence and/or absence in mythical spaces.

After Tucker’s speech, Bessie and King announced the contest’s winners, who have been listed below.

Bessie reflected upon the comic awards, calling the event “very moving” and noting that the ability to encourage students and honor their work are among the main reasons he became a teacher.

For aspiring comic artists who are considering entering the comics contest next year, grand prize winner Cancilla said, “My biggest advice would be to just choose something you really care about, and you really want other people to hear.”

The top five contestants received cash prizes, and all winners of the contest received a prize pack containing drawing pads, pens and markers.

Grand Prize: 2021 DVC James O’Keefe Comic Contest Awards

Emory CancillaFor Her: Tanna Tucker Award

Runners-Up: 2021 DVC James O’Keefe Comic Contest Awards

Gabe DavalosAmerican Orange: Ready For Publication Honors; Joe Sacco Award

Camyrn BazanZe is Okay: Ready For Publication Honors; Invader Zim (Jhonen Vasquez) Award

Ezekiel MyersDear Zarah: Ready For Publication Honors; MK Czerwiec Graphic Medicine Award

Eva SachtschaleAll-the-Covid-facts: Ready For Publication Honors; Best Adaption

Award (Animaniacs)

Jacob ArmentaSkateboarding 101: Thrasher Zine Award

Alexandria HandajaBehind the Great Wall: The Scott McCloud Non-Fiction Comics Award 

Erilou SantosPizza Wars: The Jim Davis Award 

Travis GarffThe Worst Type of Person: The Travis Award (personalized due to its exceptionally unique nature)

Sheldon McVGracie Sees The Circus: Family Circus Award (Jeff Keane of Family Circus comic strip)

Victoria NavaThe Race to Finish: Runner up for MK Czerwiec Graphic Medicine Award

*Correction Notice: In the article “James O’Keefe Comics Contest Tackles History, Humor, and Pain through Art,” there was an error in reference to DVC instructor Arthur King’s title; in addition to being an instructor for art and digital media, King is also the art gallery coordinator and an art department instructional assistant. An error in reference to King’s name has also been corrected.