On the academic road to a dream job in an animation studio, cartoonist, writer and recent graphic design graduate Adan Contreras had no idea he would be chosen to create a work of literature and art that would become part of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration.
Keith Erekson, Ph.D., executive director of the Centennial Celebration, sought a student to produce something special to exemplify UTEP and its 21st century demographic — a creative work that could also be used as a recruiting tool long after the conclusion of the Centennial Celebration. Adan Contreras’ graphic novel, “Miner Things,” will be released in conjunction with UTEP’s Centennial Celebration.
Erekson contacted Associate Professor of Art Antonio Castro, who recommended Contreras as the natural choice for a very unique work: a graphic novel that would combine Contreras’ comic book art and creative writing talents. Contreras’ project is coming to fruition under the direction and guidance of Castro and Department of Creative Writing Chair Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
The graphic novel is tentatively titled Miner Things. Using short vignettes, it explores the lives and educational experiences of five students riding a bus from the U.S.-Mexico bridge to the UTEP campus. A narrator, also a student, observes the students interacting with each other while he contemplates his own future, reflecting on the decisions he made in his life and educational career. In a self-referential twist, the story concludes with the narrator presenting a comic book he created and published to his girlfriend – also a fellow student. The characters come from different cultural groups and life situations, and follow different educational paths.
Contreras graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and a minor in creative writing. His academic resume includes an internship with the Walt Disney Co. in Orlando in 2011, and he is considering graduate education at the California Institute of the Arts, a Disney-founded school. He is now working at a marketing agency in Dallas as an interactive developer/graphic designer.
Castro, who has done all the book design for Saenz’s books published by Cinco Puntos Press, and Saenz, the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction winner, could not be a better duo to guide Contreras’ efforts in publishing a graphic novel.
“[Contreras] is versatile in both design and illustration – he’s ready to start working as a professional, and it’s my job to keep him on track stylistically,” Castro said.
Saenz is equally impressed with Contreras’ talent.
“Adan is a great graphic illustrator, and the added skill he brought to the table was being a creative writing minor,” Saenz said.
Castro first approached Contreras in the summer of 2012 and asked him to develop a plot line for the project. By fall of 2012 he was ready to submit his ideas.
“I see it in my head first,” said Contreras, describing his creative process. “I wanted to do a different take on stereotypes. For instance, the geeks are always engineers, the sweet ones always choose nursing. I wanted to show that’s not always so – and I based them on people I have actually met.”
Contreras said he draws his characters first, developing their personalities as the story unfolds. Once that’s done, he scans his final sketches and uses computer software to add color and detail, bringing his characters to life.
For the story itself, Contreras recognized that producing an accurate reflection of student life at UTEP would require a complex tapestry of themes and character development.
“Getting the message of life choices about college in the context of a coming-of-age story that directly relates to our unique culture was a huge challenge,” he said.
Castro believes this project will do more for Contreras than just secure his place in UTEP’s Centennial history as the creator of a one-of-a-kind piece of art and writing.
“This is going to be a great portfolio piece,” Castro said. “It’s something that likely no one else will have to show.”
Contreras said the reward goes beyond the experience of working with two great mentors, and beyond being a part of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration. The fact that his graphic novel will be reproduced as a recruiting tool for local high school students and sent out in recruiting packets nationwide brings Contreras a huge sense of accomplishment.
“To have a published piece that could possibly impact someone’s decisions about life and education is very humbling and rewarding,” he said.
Sandy Hicks writes for UTEP's Office of University Communications.