The “pictureless comic” activity, originally from Chapter 7 of DWWP, is one that we use constantly, in formal classes, in intensive workshops, and in casual talks and improvised situations. We once did it in a lecture hall at a comic convention with 200 people!
It has so many advantages: at its core, it’s a study of how comics work, the elements of comics and how they work together to create meaning, even without pictorial images. It’s also a great way to learn layout and lettering skills, and to concentrate on those technical skills, again, without distraction. Finally, it’s an activity that anyone can do. Drawing skills are unnecessary (though a design sensibility is certainly a help!).
Depending on your context, you approach this activity in any number of ways. You might have students do only a thumbnail of their pictureless comic, in order to concentrate on the comics language and structure aspect. You could have students do just a strip, or a whole page. You could approach it systematically, with a thumb, a critique, revision, and then a demo of layout and lettering, followed by finishing the page in ink. An inking demo—concentrating on lettering, effects, and panel borders—doesn’t go amiss in there, either.
The pictureless comic is great for all ages, as long as students can write. Simply adjust the level of finish you’re looking for to your age group/interest level.
There are two main approaches to this project.
- One is to focus on the story alone, stopping at the thumbnail stage (with revisions). If you’re doing this, all you need as far as materials is office paper and whatever writing/drawing implements you have to hand. As to instructions, just stop following instructions after the critique of thumbs.
- The other is to use that thumbnail as a jumping-off point to learn layout and lettering by making a finished comic. The instructions are written with this approach in mind. If you plan to go whole hog, look for layout and lettering tips, see DWWP chapters 6 and 7 for tutorials, as well as these videos I posted of a layout and lettering demo I did recently (for this exact project!).
Now you are going to draw a comic with a twist: You can’t draw any pictures! This activity serves two purposes. One is to practice laying out a page as described in Chapter 6: measuring out your live area and laying out your tiers and gutters, as well as to learn about inking panel borders, deciding on panel sizes, inking lettering and sound effects, and so on. The other is to challenge you to see what kind of story you can tell using only empty panels and lettering.
Come up with a story that can be told using no images— let the very idea of no images be a starting point: What is a situation in which something might happen in a field of white or black? Classic examples would be a scene with two characters caught in a snowstorm or having a conversation in total darkness. But you can be more creative than that! Make a thumbnail. You can use as many panels as you want, and you can include lettering, thought balloons, speech balloons, narration boxes, emanata, and sound effects. You can leave the panels white or you can fill them in with black (use a brush for this!), but you can’t draw any shapes; the panel has to be either white or solid black (not gray).
(Alternately, just some office paper and pens and pencils)
Lay out, pencil, and ink a one-page comic that tells a story without using any drawings. Again, the comic should still tell a story despite the lack of images. Think about how you can tell a story entirely through the placement, size, and rhythm of panels, use of text (dialogue, sound effects, narration), and emanata.
Crit of the thumbnail:
Crit of the final page:
With young kids through perhaps junior high, focus on getting them to think of stories that could take place in the dark, or in a blindingly-bright place (or in the snow). You might talk about breaking down the story into steps, and then let them go. If they need layout help to keep it neat, you might have them fold the paper before they draw, so they have guidelines.
With everyone else, it’s just a matter of deciding what your objectives are for the activity. Do you want to use it only to teach the language of comics, or is it a warm up for making comics with pictures as well?
Don’t miss the three pictureless comics with critiques we posted in the book guide to Chapter 7.
An aside: this activity was inspired by a rumor Matt had heard of a superhero comic someone once did where there were no pictures in the whole book—apparently a deadline situation in the extreme!
Since we started doing the activity, though, several students, much better informed than we are, helped us get our story straight. The pictureless story in question is called “Snowblind,” by John Byrne, in the comic Alpha Flight. It was a 5-page sequence in the context of a full comic, and was part of a company-wide promotion by Marvel Comics in 1984 called “Assistant Editor Month.” The joke was, all the editors all went to San Diego Comic-Con, and leaving the assistant-editor mice to play. Silliness prevailed all over. Here’s the comic in question, courtesy of Jefferson Powers.
A quick pictureless strip Matt and I came up with for our interview on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. It’s inked, but without using any fancy layout tools—a decent middle ground to strike.
The teacher guide notes for this activity.
My students’ pictureless comics from the Comic Kraze workshop at the Miami Wolfsonian (high school level).