Activity: text/image dissonance game

Here’s a weird and fun activity that we use to play around with the outer limits of the relationship between image and text.

The basic idea is that you give students a one page comic with all the dialogue and narration whited out of the balloons and boxes. They fill in text while deliberately disregarding any correspondence to the images–the goal is “nonsense”. Then each student compares his or her comic with the others and they collectively discuss which ones make the most sense when read as a comic and which, if any, can really be said to make no sense at all.

Here is the page that we use for this activity:

Jessica drew it taking as her source a page from the Italian master Magnus‘ comic, The Specialist: Full Moon in Dendera (Catalan Communications, alas, long out of print). We chose this particular page to adapt because it has a variety of situations and characters whose relationships are not immediately clear. (You can download a pdf here.)

Here are the instructions for the activity:

Text/image dissonance


  • photocopies or printouts of our textless comic pdf or a similar page with all text whited out
  • pencils and/or pens
  • tape or push pins and a wall to post panels on


  1. Hand out a copy to everyone in the class and tell them to fill in the word balloons with any text they like, as long as it’s neatly lettered. They should pay as little attention to the images as possible. It could be a stream of consciousness, text copied from a random source (newspaper, ink bottle label), dialogue from another comic, a song lyric, a list–whatever. It’s important that they not dwell on the images at this point, just deal with the blank space of the balloons and fill it up.
  2. Choose a wall and hand out pins or tape.  Tell the students to think of the wall as a continuum where the very far right end is the page with its original text, i.e. a perfect match of text and image. At the far left side is the opposite extreme, a complete lack of connection between the image and the text; complete nonsense. As each student finishes lettering, they should think about where on this continuum their comic fits and stick it on an appropriate spot on the wall. (Don’t go into detail at this point about what that means, the goal is for them to work through it on their own). In addition, if there are other pages already posted on the “continuum” near where they think theirs belongs, they need to read those and compare them with their own. They can then either change their mind and post their comic further to the right or left or, in rare cases, they can post their comic above or below an already-posted comic if they believe it belongs on the same spot on the continuum.

Notes for teachers/workshop leaders

Try to let everyone finish but if there are some stragglers holding you back, just start the conversation. it’s not really a critique so much as a discussion and debate about how much “meaning” and narrative you can find in each of these pages, specifically as derived from the interation of text and image from panel to panel.

We usually start by pointing out a page that  seems to us clearly in the wrong part of the continuum. For example, someone might put a list of art supplies in the balloons and just assume that the result is nonsense, but what we love about this activity is that when you break it down, panel by panel, more often than not you can find a clear dialogue and argument to the page.

Some of the things to look for are:

  • Does the dialogue parse? Who is talking in each panel? There’s quite a bit of flexibility here. For example, in panel 2 the first balloon is PROBABLY the character in panel 1 but it COULD be someone else.
  • In the second tier, is this a completely new scene? Whose voice is coming from the building? The panel 1 character? The panel 2 character? Someone new?
  • The beginning of the third tier is the toughest spot because you have yet another change of setting and whatever appears in the balloon is responded to with a question mark from the “Yves Saint-Laurent” character.

You don’t need to talk about every page, in fact you shouldn’t. We usually talk about 6-8, enough to let the idea (and its ambiguity) settle in. And all along encourage the students to question you (and, boy, some of them will!) and challenge your assertions. They are free to move stuff around or propose different readings of what’s going on in a given comic.

Sample pages

Here are a few examples of filled-in pages from past classes. Try printing them out and arranging them along a continuum and then ask a friend or classmate to consider your choices and see if she agrees. Alternately, you can open these pages in tabs and treat your browser window like the sense/nonsense spectrum by moving the tabs around.


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