Activity: a comic with no pictures

Pictureless comic by Ariel Reich

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!

Pictureless strip thumbnails

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.

Pictureless comic by Christina Marling

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.

Pictureless comics


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).


  • minimum 14″ x 17″ sheet of bristol board
  • pencil and eraser
  • beveled ruler
  • triangle
  • T-square
  • Ames Lettering Guide
  • pens (technical pen, ruling pen, pigment pen, and/or nib pen. Do not use gels or ballpoints, or other ordinary writing pens.)
  • waterproof india ink
  • graphic white or white acrylic or gouache for corrections
  • brushes for applying blacks and graphic white

(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.

  1. Make a thumbnail of your story.
  2. Critique the thumbnail, either in a group, or one-on-one with the instructor.
  3. Revise the thumbnail.
  4. Choose your page size: It’s a good idea to stick to either a 2:3 or a 3:4 ratio, which translates to a 10″ x 15″ or a 12″ x 16″ live area.
  5. Lay out your page carefully, setting up your panels, tiers, and gutters. Refer back to Chapter 6 of DWWP if you need to.
  6. Lightly mark in pencil where your lettering and effects will go.
  7. Use the Ames guide to lay out lettering lines, then pencil your lettering. If your lettering isn’t fitting right on the lines, or if it’s hitting the side of the panel … ERASE, and do it again. Don’t put up with sloppiness.
  8. Pencil any emanata and sound effects you are using.
  9. Ink your page. Start with the panel borders. Use a ruler, and either a technical pen, a ruling pen, or a pigment pen to ink straight lines.
  10. Next, ink your lettering. You can use a pigment pen or technical pen. If you know how to use a nib pen, feel free to use it. If not, don’t worry about it, use a technical pen or pigment marker.
  11. Ink word balloons and narration boxes, double-checking first that they frame your lettering effectively.
  12. Ink the emanata and sound effects, then fill any black areas with a brush.
  13. CORRECTIONS. Don’t start correcting before you finish inking—you never know when your ink blot will turn out to be invisible under the other ink you lay down. But once you’re done inking, don’t think you’re done until you correct all your mistakes with graphic white! If a panel goes too awry, use a new piece of bristol, and draw a replacement panel. See Chapter 8 of DWWP for more on corrections.
  14. When you finish, make a photocopy of your page so that it fits on an 8.5″ x 11″ (or A4) piece of office paper.

Suggestions for teachers/workshop leaders

Critique notes:

Crit of the thumbnail:

  • Start with the question: What is depicted here, and is there a logical reason that the panels are black (or white)?
  • Look at the panel layout—is the division of information logical and helpful to understanding the story?
  • Is the artist using word balloon placement well to distinguish characters and actions?
  • Is the artist using the full range of non-pictorial tools available?

Crit of the final page:

  • Part of the value of this crit is having both the original and the reduced photocopy posted, so students can see how their lettering will look to size.
  • Are the photocopies clean and professional looking? Are there unerased pencil marks? Smudges that weren’t cleaned up?
  • Look at the lettering. Is it neat? Are the spelling and grammar correct? How does the lettering size work on the photocopies: Is it too small to read? Is it too big?
  • Examine the layouts: Are the image areas perfectly rectangular? Are the panel borders inked neatly? With what tools were the borders inked? What do you think of the gutter width, both between panels and between tiers of each comic? Are panels too close together or too widely spaced?
  • How are the stories? Can you figure out what’s going on? Does the artist use the lack of images in an interesting or creative way? If there is dialogue in a comic, how can you tell which character is talking? What does the lettering style and size tell you about the personality or mood of the characters?
  • If there are emanata or sound effects in the comics, are they intelligible and neatly inked?

Age appropriateness

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?


  • Challenge students to see what kind of story you can tell using only panels and text.
  • Invite students to think about the linguistic and design aspects of comics storytelling.
  • Learn how to lay out a page with panels.
  • Learn how to letter.
  • Learn how to design display type.

Sample pages

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.

Other posts on this activity:

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).


3 Comments to Activity: a comic with no pictures

  • by David

    On August 9, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    I just completed this exercise from the book. It’s a lot of fun and a real learning experience (so far, it’s easily the lesson which has taken me longest). Couldn’t find an Ames guide here (maybe not so easy to find outside the USA…) but I used a ruler and lettered by eye — the result is that there’s not enough space between the lines but I think I won’t make that mistake next time. It’s a brilliant exercise though — and I can imagine it being used successfully in all kinds of scenarios.

  • by Jessica

    On August 25, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Too bad that you couldn’t find an Ames guide–makes things a lot easier. I know you can get them online, but shipping? No idea. Check out our lettering videos for more on this.

  • by Matt

    On May 3, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Roberto Bartual blogged about the John Byrne comic that partly inspired this activity here:

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