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Cast of creators

Media arts professor inspires and motivates students to land their dream jobs

Jarad Greene was sitting outside Thomas Cooper Library when he snatched a great idea out of the summer air.

As usual, he had colored pencils in hand and a sketchbook in his lap. He drew a girl in medieval garb. She was a dishwasher with big dreams. Greene wondered, what if she got held for ransom by someone who mistook her for a warrior princess? He jotted the storyline in brown pencil.

Five years later, Greene, '11 criminology and criminal justice, can hardly contain his glee as he holds up a first-run copy of his graphic novel, Scullion: A Dishwasher’s Guide to Mistaken Identity, which landed on bookstore shelves in July. He’s changed the story a lot since that summer day in Columbia, South Carolina, but it's still the tale of ordinary people thrust into adventure.

“It’s about friendship and being your own hero,” Greene says.

Scullion is only the beginning. Publishers are so keen on Greene’s work that he already has contracts to publish two more yet-unfinished graphic novels. That's the kind of reception most authors and artists only dream about. It means Greene, who always thought he'd land in a traditional career like law, could earn a living by writing and drawing comics full time.

“I literally never thought it would be possible," Greene says.

But even when he considered cartooning to be just a hobby, at least one person knew he could make it a career. That’s Northrop Davis, a Hollywood screenwriter-turned-professor at South Carolina. Davis teaches media arts in the college’s School of Visual Art and Design and has a penchant for inspiring students to launch creative careers. His former students describe him as “endlessly encouraging” and compare him to “a proud dad” because of his commitment to celebrating every milestone.

Asked about his work, Davis describes a whole cast of graduates. They had different majors, and they have different roles today. But each one creates stories for a living. He obviously cares about what they do.

“He's really invested in all of his students' success,” Greene says. “If you take your work really seriously, then he’s right there with you.”

Greene says Davis helped him by forming a community. He met fellow creators in WeMakeManga, a student group that publishes comics online, and at “Dinner Dialogues” hosted by Davis. Those other students energized Greene.

“It was the first time that I met people who took their writing and cartooning as seriously as I did,” he says. “Finding these like-minded people and helping each other, that was huge.”

Northrup Davis looks at a sketchbook with two students

Northrop Davis, center, is a Hollywood screenwriter-turned-professor. He teaches media arts in the college’s School of Visual Art and Design and has a penchant for inspiring students to launch creative careers.

Dreams come true

Greene is just one of Davis’ students who have benefited from his mentorship and encouragement, not only while they were in school but also as they began their careers.

Tyler Peck, '12 media arts and English, always knew he wanted to write for TV and film, so he was thrilled to take classes from a professor who had done just that.

“You could tell how passionate he was about teaching. His excitement was infectious,” Peck says. “He had real-world knowledge of what so many people in that program dream of doing.”

Peck remembers one practical exercise that stuck with him. In Davis’ class about manga (Japanese comics), he had to come up with a story. Then Davis sent him to an art class to pitch the story to students who could illustrate it for him.

Now that Peck works for Nicole Kidman’s production company, Blossom Films, he sees the genius of the activity.

“That's what you do in the real world,” Peck says. “You've got to pitch, and you have to make other people believe in your idea. And then you have to collaborate with other people.”

Then there's Brook Driver, a British exchange student who attended South Carolina for a year. Since taking Davis’ classes, he’s sold scripts to the producers of the Harry Potter film franchise and Downton Abbey.

“Northrop was really engaging and passionate about the subject," Driver says. “I got so much from these classes, and they set me well on the path that I have been on ever since.”

More recently, Tyler Spaid, '20 media arts, took Davis' TV writing class. He wrote the script for Tour of the Band, a comedy about a scrappy punk band that drops out of college to go on tour. Davis encouraged him to do more with the concept. Eventually, Spaid asked theater professor Dustin Whitehead to supervise an independent study as Spaid produced the show.

He filmed the episode in December 2019, edited it and sent it to Amazon Prime Video Direct, which allows independent creators to earn royalties from online streaming. In April, the show was added to Amazon’s offerings — a mini-victory and a validating starting point.

Spaid said Davis’ motivations kept him going.

“He definitely saw some potential in me before I saw it in myself,” Spaid says. “A lot of times you want to do your assignment for a grade and never think of it again, but he pushed me to put in the effort and get it out there for people to see.”

sketches in a sketchbook

Commitment to student success

Davis’ passion for student success doesn’t end at graduation. He uses industry connections to help some alumni find jobs. Sometimes he hires his alumni for projects.

A few alumni are producing Davis’ own manga, The Hole, which tells the story of a family of space farmers living near a black hole. Louise Wang, '11 media arts, is the chief artist, and Hannah Mitchell, '13 media arts, is the editor. Davis hired them in hopes that this project will help them break into something bigger.

“I knew they were terrific, and they needed to be discovered,” he says.

Mitchell designs materials for the U.S. Department of Agriculture full time, but working on The Hole has prompted her to do more.

“It's made me want to venture out on my own and explore different ways of being creative,” she says. “It's definitely inspired me.”

Inspiration and motivation from Davis also helped Carl Hilton, '17 media arts, who specialized in animation, land his dream job. After graduation, Hilton took a job at The UPS Store on Gervais Street because all the animation jobs he saw advertised required years of experience.

“I didn't stop looking for animation jobs, but I didn't have the self-confidence to go for it,” Hilton says.

Whenever Davis came to the store to ship packages, he encouraged Hilton to chase his goals and told him to ignore experience requirements and just apply.

“I kept pushing him to be aggressive,” Davis says.

A couple of years after graduating, Hilton acted on Davis’ advice. He got an interview with Atlanta-based Bento Box Entertainment, maker of cartoons like Bob’s Burgers and Paradise PD. He was walking to The UPS Store when he got an email on his phone saying he was hired.

“I practically ran to work,” Hilton says.

But that euphoria didn’t compare to the joy of starting his dream job.

“It still didn't really hit me until I was here, when I moved down and found my desk,” he says. “I'm really happy and thankful every day that I can do this.”

It wouldn’t have happened without Davis, Hilton says.

“Northrop is one of those professors that genuinely wants to see his students succeed and go forth into the industry.”

Stories like Hilton’s are why Davis does what he does.

“I believe the undergrads are capable not only of absorbing far more than people might realize, but also of directly going into fulfilling careers from here," he says. “A lot of it is to get them to believe in themselves.”


This story was originally published in In Focus magazine.

Banner image: Jarad Greene, '11  criminology and criminal justice, wrote a graphic novel, Scullion: A Dishwasher’s Guide to Mistaken Identity, which landed on bookstore shelves in July.