A new course idea: the extended comics workshop

co-teacher Tom Hart critiques a student's work-in-progress

Over the last two years, Tom Hart and I have been offering an advanced comics workshop that I believe is a new and fruitful addition to comics education. We offer the class under the title “Independent Projects Seminar: Comics” through the School of Visual Arts‘s Continuing Education program (I realized while writing this post that seminar isn’t really the right term for what we’re doing, though that’s apparently where it fits in SVA’s curricular structure), and it’s designed for advanced students of cartooning, often ones who have taken classes before and are ready to work on extended projects on their own. Many of them have already launched into long-term projects like graphic novels or simply long comics stories or webcomics, while others veer off into related forms like gag cartoons or narrative sequences of illustrations.

Recently we held the second meeting of our summer session and as always the conversation was lively;  the atmosphere supportive, relaxed, and congenial. I thought it would be worth sharing the outline of the class as well as a few observations about it.

students critique each other's work and exchange notes at a recent class meeting at SVA.

The class has two interrelated goals:

  • give students a structure in which to work independently while still getting periodic feedback
  • prepare students to continue working on their own as independent artists

We meet only occasionally—three times throughout the four-month semester—so that students have a chance to set goals and make substantial progress before coming in to have their work critiqued. This kind of structure is common in creative writing programs but to my knowledge it hasn’t been attempted much in comics instruction. (If you know of anyone else out there teaching a course like this I’d love to hear it.) However, it strikes me as an excellent arrangement since comics require so much work time, even to finish just a few pages of inked work, or a chapter of thumbnails.

Although it is not essential to team-teach this class, Tom and I find it much easier to give in-depth feedback to everyone in the group (class size has ranged from 8 to 15) working together. We also have differing yet complementary visions of comics so students get a more nuanced take on their work (on occasion, we even contradict each other’s advice (the same is true when Jessica and I teach together)). Plus, I believe it might reduce the tendency of students to view a single teacher as an authority figure.

Students post work in progress on the wall for classmates to critique

Here’s how the three class meetings break down:

First meeting:
During the first class meeting Tom and I talk about our creative process and our history as professional cartoonists. Next, students talk about projects they are working on or planning and show whatever work they have with them–sometimes the work itself in an early stage, or else exmaples of other work they’ve done. We then help them choose a project to work on for the duration of the course. This might be a complete 10-12 page story from thumbs to inks but more often it’s a matter of choosing a workable chunk of a longer project, for example: finished pencils and a few pages inked, or even just thumbnails and concept sketches. We make a list of everyone’s goals for the next class. We also set up a class wiki so that people can upload files for comment, ask questions, view the syllabus and list of goals, and so on. (I love the idea of a shareable online space, but we haven’t found an ideal tool for it yet. PBWorks is quite good but the interface isn’t all that easy to navigate and not as many students use it as we would like.)

Second meeting:
The second meeting is the meatiest because students are in the thick of whatever project they’re working on. Classmates and teachers offer detailed feedback about what’s working so far and what’s not, and try to help each student find the best way to move forward—which includes setting/revising a goal for the final meeting. A few students weren’t able to produce much—life intervenes, that’s part of the process—but most had met part or all of their goals. Some of the issues students were facing this time around ranged from lettering style and text placement to wrangling scanners to striking a balance between weirdness and narrative clarity.

We encourage the students to critique their own work and we talk a lot about time management and career development: organizing your work time, setting goals, getting into publishing, and so on. The second meeting is also when bring in a guest artist to talk about his or her creative and career path into comics. Most recently we had in Sarah Glidden, whose  first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, is coming out in the fall from Vertigo. In addition to sharing her experience, she did a demo of the watercolor technique she came up with to color her book.

Cartoonist Sarah Glidden shares insights into her creative and career path

Interim “office hours”:
A few semesters we have offered informal “office hours”, a chance for people to check in with me and Tom during the two month stretch between the second and last meeting. In truth, only two or three students have ever availed themselves of it (and they’re the ones who would get in touch to ask questions anyway) so we’ve basically scrapped that feature. Between the wiki (which only a few students use productively) and occasional e-mail contact, everyone seems to get the feedback they need.

Last meeting:
During the last meeting we make a final assessment of people’s progress. We emphasize meeting goals as much as the quality of what was accomplished. I’m always impressed at the number of students who meet and even surpass their goals, especially considering these are often older students with day jobs and families. We talk about what goals to set going forward and we discuss publishing options for those whose work is getting ready to send out into the world. We knock off on the early side and go to a nearby bar to have a drink and continue the conversations in a more informal setting.

We designed this class to be an ongoing workshop for anyone who’s working on comics, whether they have been in a classroom recently or not. We invite students to take the class as often as they want—they may get bored of Tom’s and my opening day talks but otherwise it’s garuanteed to be all-new each time around. Many of our students keep in touch online and at local comics events and several have in fact taken the class multiple times. We’ve seen quite a few minicomics come out of the class but many of these comics are long-term works in progress, a few of which you will be certainly hearing about a few years down the line. It’s a simple structure but it seems to be working well so far.


5 Comments to A new course idea: the extended comics workshop

  • by Sophie

    On July 27, 2010 at 12:58 am

    This sounds like a really excellent format! I have some other projects I’ve been wanting to start on aside from my webcomic and having some informed feedback would be so very helpful. I really hope I can take this class some day.

  • by Matt

    On July 29, 2010 at 2:59 am

    I we’ll see you one of these semesters, Sophie!


  • by Richard L.

    On July 29, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    I’m currently in the seminar. It’s been a tremendous help for my comics work.

    First, I’ve gotten very helpful critiques from Matt, Tom, and the rest of the class. The critiques have been both about story and technique. Given the nature of comics, you can often find yourself working in a bubble and getting your work in front of a dozen set of eyes has been very useful.

    Secondly, it’s been great to set goals for each class — this has helped me stay on task (which can be difficult since I work full-time as a designer). Its not like we’re being graded and I’ll fail if I miss a goal. Rather, it’s motivating (at least for me) to try to stick to a set of deliverables.

    I should also add that I enjoy seeing the comics and workflows of the other students. There’s a wide range of styles, genres and stories.

    I’m definitely going to keep signing up for this seminar. It’s like have a set of editors keeping you on point.

  • by Matt

    On July 30, 2010 at 1:47 am

    Thanks for sharing, Richard.


  • by susanna plotnick

    On September 14, 2010 at 12:41 am

    I have taken this class twice to get feedback on a series of illlustrated books I am working on, and, like Richard, I have found it an enormous help to my work.

    Tom and Matt are great teachers, and they compliment each other. Tom is extremely sensitive to what each artist is trying to do, and when we get off track. Matt is a stickler on storytelling and drawing clarity.

    It is wonderful to have two great teachers and a group of artists with goals of making sequential art. In each class, there has been tremendous diversity of vision and execution. It breaks the isolation you can feel working alone for long periods of time.

    Setting goals and having a group of people waiting for the work is a powerful incentive to keep going. Many students keep in touch via the wiki in between classes.

    In short, I can’t recommend this seminar highly enough.

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