Breaking Free comic book cover

Breaking Free cover

Miles Wilson (MFA ’19) and Peter McLaren, Ph.D., will be the first tell you that unexpected things can happen in unexpected places at a big/little place like Chapman. The Dodge College graduate student studying film production met the internationally renowned scholar and activist at a friend of friend’s going-away party one evening in Orange near Chapman’s campus and quickly struck up a conversation.

Six months later they published an autobiographical comic book together: Breaking Free: The Life and Times of Peter McLaren, Radical Educator, written by Dr. Peter McLaren and illustrated by Miles Wilson.

“At the time, I had no idea he was this big icon for critical studies,” recalls Wilson. “I’m looking at him and I’m like, ‘Who’s this guy? He looks weird like I look weird. I wonder what his deal is. Let’s see what he’s all about.’”

The two asked the usual get-to-know-you questions, and after Wilson shared examples of his art and earlier comic book projects, McLaren told him about an autobiographical project he was putting together.

“It just took off from there,” says Wilson.

Dark Realism

Breaking Free, published by Myers Education Books, traces Dr. McLaren’s life and work—from his conservative working-class upbringing in Toronto; to his encounters with key players in history including Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, the Black Panthers, and Umberto Eco; to his education, travels through Latin America in the 1980s, and discovery of Marx and socialism later in life. Other milestones include his meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2005 and his subsequent work for the Bolivarian revolution.

“When Miles showed me samples of his animated work,” McLaren says, “I knew he was the perfect person to illustrate the key events in my life.”

Dr. McLaren wanted to produce a book for a younger generation, one they could appreciate on its own terms, that at the same time could still be used in teacher education classes in university settings.

From conception to completion, the entire project took just six months. Dr. McLaren would give Wilson a rough outline of what he wanted written and illustrated. Wilson was then free to bring his own artistic style and influences to the illustrations.

“Miles was more than up to the task,” explains McLaren. “Ultimately he was given free rein to select and interpret events in my life, injecting them with a dark, hallucinatory realism and wildly humorous approach. This book would have been impossible without him.”

Bringing a Life to 2D

One of the architects of revolutionary critical pedagogy, Dr. McLaren is a Distinguished Professor of Critical Studies in the Attallah College of Educational Studies as well as the author and editor of nearly 50 books. His writings have been translated into more than 25 languages. McLaren’s first book, Cries from the Corridor, about his early teaching experiences made the Canadian bestseller list and was one of the top 10 bestselling books in Canada in 1980, initiating a country-wide debate on the status of inner-city schools. As a scholar and activist whose publications and educational activism attempt to reflect the goals and educational practices developed by his mentor, Paulo Freire, McLaren is a frequent international speaker whose work has a global reach.

Sample page from Breaking Free, written by Peter McLaren and illustrated by Miles Wilson

Sample page from Breaking Free, written by Peter McLaren and illustrated by Miles Wilson

Breaking Free, however, is more than a chronicle of McLaren’s professional life. The comic explores his personal influences as well as the ideologies that guide his activism and beliefs, which he says are “marinated in lib­eration theology.” Dr. McLaren explains in the book’s preface that the comic book may “be considered subversive,” but that’s one of the reasons he chose it.

For his part, Wilson sees a natural connection between the comic book format and the film work he’s done while working on his MFA at Chapman. The story is driven by dialogue and visuals, and the comic panels function similarly to the storyboarding technique used by filmmakers. He also finds pleasure in the freedom allotted by the 2D form.

”I found that drawing by hand, it’s tactile. It has a vibrancy. A certain kind of vibrancy that you can’t really replicate with computers.”

Both McLaren and Wilson enjoyed the collaborative process, which explains the rapid pace of the project.

As he concludes the book’s preface, Dr. McLaren summarizes the team’s creative relationship and his hopes for how their work will impact readers: “My story is undoubtedly filtered through the visual signature of Miles, who brought layers—at once humorous, dark, and self-reflexive—of his own experiences and understandings to the finished artwork. The final outcome will, I hope, provoke readers to rethink education not as a set of classroom practices but rather come to see teaching as the journey of a lifetime, as a way of being and becoming, as a political project for building a socialist alternative for ourselves, our students, and for the future.”

For additional samples of Miles Wilson’s work, see his YouTube series called Now Playing Podcast Snippets and Instagram account.

For a detailed a professional biography and list of Dr. Peter McLaren’s other publications, see his Chapman faculty page.