HOW DOES A COMIC WORK?
One of the big questions we are asking in class is “how does a comic work?” Of course we want to know what a comic is and how to make one, but we’re doing so from the inside-out. We’re taking it apart to understand it. For our first three-hour workshop, we’ll talk about sketchbooks, make a diary comic and discuss comics terms.
Each of my students was given a Moleskine sketchbook and an 08 Micron pen. This does a few things:
1) Puts all students in the same boat. They all have the same new materials and will be learning how to use them as a class.
2) Sketchbooks are invaluable for storytelling of any kind.
3) Working in a sketchbook using only a pen (no pencil) pushes students to keep moving forward. There is no option to stop and erase, so we must go forward.
Junior high and high school students often use sketchbooks as a collection of their best and favorite drawings. They like to tear out anything they’ve “messed up” and erase any flaws on their finished work. In my class, we like to think of sketchbooks as a playground. A private playground. The paper is a place and it’s yours to explore. Nobody has to see anything you do in your sketchbook without your permission. Use that as a starting point for taking chances. Try new things. Draw with crayons, smudge the ink, take a line for a walk. If you are unsure about a drawing or something you are writing, then the sketchbook is the perfect place to figure it out.
Print out the guidelines below and keep them in your sketchbook.
Time to put our new sketchbooks and pens to work! I find that learning to write better improves my drawing, and learning to draw better improves my writing, so we’re going to do a writing exercise. Let the students know that we’ll be making lists in a few different categories. The first category is occupations. Give the students 2-3 minutes to list as many occupations as they can think of. Encourage them to think of jobs that they’d like to have, jobs that their parents and neighbors have, jobs that they would never want to have, difficult jobs, dangerous jobs. The idea is to keep the ideas coming and to keep their pens moving. The students should be writing one- or two-word titles or descriptions of each job.
Give the students several more topics and spend 2-3 minutes on each, listing as many in each category as the students can think of. Our class had plenty of time, so we also included the following categories: physical traits, habits, objects, activities/events, foods, people, animals, memories, fears, and hopes.
It’s amazing how quiet a classroom can get when everyone is busy thinking and writing. We’ve just listed something close to 100 items, spanning several topics. These are ideas. Starting points for characters, places, problems and stories. While we won’t spend the time right now to discuss using the ideas and developing them into stories, it’s important to point out that ideas come from all around us–from what we experience every day and the ways that we connect with them.
I love bringing comics from my personal collection into class, and this next project works best if you are able to bring in some examples from your own collection, the library or even from the internet.
Diary comics are a specific kind of autobiographical comic where the creator recounts his/her day in the form of a comic, as in James Kochalka’s American Elf (1). James has been making a four-panel strip of his life, every single day, for the last 15 years. His comic is called American Elf, and, though he draws himself as an elf-like character, everything that happens in his comic is true to life. The comic covers everything from his role as a father and husband, to teaching cartooning classes, traveling, playing music, and enjoying the changing seasons. These are journal entries in comics forms, so sometimes the entire comic is just about something he thought about that day. At other times the comic focuses on a single telephone call or a funny conversation. (Note to instructors: not all American Elf comics are kid-friendly, so be sure to pick out some appropriate comics ahead of time.)
MAKE A DIARY COMIC
Hand out a sheet of 11×14″ smooth bristol board to each student and let them know that they’ll be making their own diary comic about something they did or something that happened to them today. Encourage students to fill up as much of the page as possible and to use four panels. The panels can be any shape or size, so long as there are four of them and that the student uses most of the space on the page. Encourage students to work out their drawings and ideas in their sketchbooks, before working on the bristol board. Demonstrate, if necessary, how to lightly draw each panel using a pencil. Once everything has been drawn in pencil the students can use their Micron pens to finalize the artwork and text.
Students that are not used to writing in a journal might not be sure of what they should write about. Have them think through their day: what time they woke up, what they did when they woke up, etc. Have them think about anything interesting that they saw or did. Ask if they met someone new, or if something in their daily routine changed. Half of the assignment is getting students to think about content and meaningful subject matter. Rather than asking the class to draw any specific picture, we are asking them to identify the value in their own lives, and write about something that matters to them. This project should take about one hour.
Be sure to leave enough time to discuss the students’ comics. Have the class talk about which moments they chose to write about and how their drawings and text work to tell the story.
ANATOMY OF A COMIC
Using the diary comics as examples, talk about the different parts of a comic. Rather than focusing on comic formats, we want to identify the anatomy of a page. Point out and discuss the following:
- Comic: Sequential art, or juxtaposed sequences of panels of images.
- Panel: A segment of action, often contained by a border or outline.
- Gutter: The space between panels.
- Speech Balloon: Contained section used for dialogue.
- Spread: An image that spans more than a single page.
- Splash: An image that fills an entire page.
- Caption: Box of text, usually reserved for narrator’s voice.
- Emanata: Lines around a character’s head to indicate shock or surprise.
- Onomatopoeia: Words that mimic sounds.
We could spend an entire day talking about different comics terms, but these nine that I have selected are especially important for comics creators in knowing what kinds of tools they have to work with. In many ways, comics are their own language, and to understand these terms is to understand the grammar of comics.
END OF PART 2
That’s it for our first class! Read Part 1 to learn more about the workshop and what we’re doing, and be sure to subscribe for more posts (top-right of this page).More Autobiographical Comics
- James Kochalka started to turn his daily life into a daily four-panel strip starting in 1998, collected in Sketchbook Diaries, and later in the webcomic, American Elf (see 1 above).
- Art Spiegelman combined biography and autobiography in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, about his father’s Holocaust experiences, his own relationship with his father, and the process of interviewing him for the book. This work had a major effect on the reception of comics in general upon the world of mainstream prose literature, awakening many to the potential of comics as a medium for stories other than adventure fantasy (see 2 above).
- David B., another artist who had first published fantasy comics stories, produced the graphic novel L’ascension du haut mal (published in English as Epileptic) applied B.’s distinctive non-realistic style to the story of his equally unusual upbringing, in which his family moved to a macrobiotic commune and sought many other cure’s for B.’s brother’s grand mal seizures (see 3 above).
- Alison Bechdel wrote and illustrated Fun Home (2006), about her relationship with her father, and it was named by Time magazine as number one of its “10 Best Books of the Year.”
- Lynda Barry wrote and illustrated What It Is (2008), a comic on creative writing and drawing, mingled with memoir.