Derek Mainhart has been enthusiastic in his adoption of DWWP, and we were interested to hear how he uses it in the classroom, and in particular which sections are most useful to him. We thought you might like to hear about it as well, and invited him to write a guest post. We hope he’ll return and post more in the future!
I’m an art teacher from Long Island who specializes in teaching cartooning. Every summer for the past six years, I’ve had the good fortune to teach an intensive cartooning course at an institution dedicated to the visual and performing arts. Increasingly, I’ve been incorporating some of the approaches outlined in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures.
I always begin with terminology in order to facilitate intelligent discussion about the comics we’re creating (critique group/individual, formal/informal is a big part of my class). We then brainstorm for concepts. I find the card game in Appendix C of DWWP especially useful for this.
Following the structure of DWWP, I introduce gag cartoons first, then move on to comic strips and finally to comic books (graphic novels, whatever). I find this approach loosens students up by breaking the work down into smaller chunks first, instead of having to come up with an idea for a “full-length masterpiece” coming out of the gate. (To be sure, there are always students with grand epics already in mind). This also encourages students to experiment with different formats (i.e. making comic strips the focus of their work if they want).
Once they’ve chosen their format, we begin thumbnails in earnest. At this point I just let them work, getting ideas out without fear of whether the work is “good” or not. Overcoming fear of the blank page is enough.
Once their ideas are on paper, we begin the revision process. Through the various forms of critique mentioned above, I try to get students to see how their work can be improved. I’ve found this generally involves two storytelling concerns: clarity and pacing. I do specific pacing exercises (presenting a scenario with terrible pacing and asking students to improve it) to help illustrate its importance. I also show them pacing examples that are deliberately awkward to create unconventional (usually comedic) effects (I find Jason’s work helpful in this lesson)
During the revision process I also begin to take the role of “editor”. In addition to emphasizing clarity and pacing (not to mention keeping deadlines!), I try to offer suggestions that get students to think more critically about their work, or to take a step back from their drawing board and consider possibilities for their story that they perhaps hadn’t considered. I try to tread carefully while doing this. It is always a fine line between opening up a student to new possibilities, and hijacking their work. I always try to remain respectful of this. The critique pointers in Appendix B of DWWP are especially helpful in this regard.
I do intersperse some drawing lessons in my curriculum. (I find there are always some students who take the course primarily to learn how to draw.) However these are always ancillary to the goal of storytelling. I am gratified that DWWP espouses a similar approach.
I also think the use of examples from comics art history in DWWP is excellent. It’s something I incorporate into my curriculum as well (indeed, I’ll base entire lessons on a particular artist. I sometimes think I’d like to teach an entire course on comics art history.)
Of course any teacher knows that one of the most integral parts of education is keeping students motivated. In this case, motivation comes in the form of seeing their work published. At the end of the course, students receive an anthology of their work (generally running from 40 – 70 pgs depending on class size and how much work they produce). In our increasingly digital age, it’s reassuring to see the satisfaction students still get from flipping through the pages of their very own comic book.
In closing, I’d like to say how grateful I am both for the DWWP text and for this website. As a cartooning teacher, it’s sometimes difficult to find other educators who treat the subject with a seriousness of purpose. It’s reassuring to know that they’re out there.
Derek Mainhart is a cartooning teacher at Deer Park High School as well as the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, both in NY. He is a former Vice President of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in lower Manhattan.