Activity: the jam comic

A great way to introduce people to the world of comics is to make a “jam comic” with a class or workshop. A jam comic is an improvised collaborative comic wherein one person draws a single panel and then passes it on to the next person, whose job it is to draw a new panel that continues the story. In addition to being a relaxed introduction to creating comics, jam comics are a great warm-up activity and icebreaker.

Jam comics are often more fun to create than to read since they tend to become a little chaotic. However, one way to create more interesting comics is to assign yourselves a rule that will give all the participants a common guiding principle or constraint. For example, you could make a jam comic where every panel has to include a circle, a triangle, and a square.

This comic started with the last panel and ended with the first.

This is a versatile activity that you can use in any number of contexts. Matt begins most courses he teaches with the jam comic as an icebreaker. It doesn’t require a lot of drawing skill, so it can be used as a way to help people learn how comics work inductively, through creating and discussing these quick, one-page comics.

You can easily do this activity with any age group, and even mixed age groups, but it may be more fun, and more productive in the discussion stage, if you segregate groups of participants by age in a general way. Matt once did this with a group of 100 people or so, about 30 of whom were in grade school. The stripped down list of rules that follows (more rules are available in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, “Directed Jam Comic”, p. 13) was easy for the youngsters to follow for the most part while still presenting a creative challenge to the adults.

This activity usually takes about 45 minutes and is easily expanded to an hour (with more discussion) or longer, by adding other activities.

students doing jam comics at the Nassau Community College in May 2010.

Jam Comics


  • office paper laid out with a nine-panel grid (one per participant). A PDF of the nine-panel grid is available as a free download here, or you can make your own.
  • pencils and/or pens
  • push pins or tape (for workshop leader)


Every participant gets a sheet of paper with a nine-panel grid on it. Before you start drawing, everyone must choose a rule for their jam comic to follow and must write that rule at the top of the page.

You can write these rules on a board, or create a handout with just these rules on it.

  1. Backward. Tell a story backwards. Draw the last panel first. Then the next person will draw the panel before.
  2. Monosyllables. You can only use one-syllable words.
  3. Monotext. Use only one word per panel.
  4. Monotext/Monosyllable. Use one word per panel, and it has to be a one-syllable word.
  5. Imageless. Use words, sound effects, and emanata, but no pictures.
  6. Wordless. Only pictures, no words.

More rules are available in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, “Directed Jam Comic” (p. 13), and you may also invent your own.

Once participants have chosen a rule and written it at the top of the page, have them draw the first panel (note that this will be the top left panel except in the case of the “backward” which should start with the bottom right panel). Tell them not to worry about making polished, perfect drawings; to simply sketch ideas in and have fun with them. They may work in pencil or pen, whichever they prefer, but they should not spend more than five minutes on any given drawing. Every time participants finish a panel, they should find someone to trade with (if there are nine or more, they should try not to draw on the same comic more than once). Most people draw their comics vertically, like a comics page, but it’s also fine to do a horizontal layout:

Each panel in this comic has to make reference to a letter of the alphabet.

Suggestions for workshop leaders

Explain the various rules, and have participants pick one each, then write their choice on the top of the page before starting.

If you are working with students with minimal drawing experience, it’s important to emphasize that the quality or polish of the drawings is not the goal, the idea or action is the goal. If you are using Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, you can refer to or project “Can’t draw? Read this” on page 9 to illustrate some strategies for drawing successfully regardless of drawing ability.

Walk around and help people figure out what they want to do, then encourage them as they work. Participants are likely to be shy at first, but need to keep trading pages in order to finish the jams, so make them stand up as soon as they’ve finished a panel, and walk over to other people who’ve finished to trade. This concept, of making them stand and walk around, is reliably helpful in getting them energized. The excitement is infectious, and by the end you won’t need to prompt them.

As they finish the comics, post them on a wall. When they are all finished it’s gratifying to congratulate the group and tell them they’ve just completed x number of comics in 45 minutes.

When you’re done

Pass the finished jam comics around or hang them on the wall. You will all get a good laugh out of the unexpected twists, funny gags, and general goofiness of the comics. Using proper comics terminology (panels, tiers, word balloons, emanata, etc.), ask participants to talk about:

  1. which is your favorite comic? Why?

Looking over finished comics at the Nassau Community College in May 2010

If you have a small group or more time:

  1. Talk more about each comic. Point out how panels play off each other.
  2. Ask what surprises participants about how the comics turned out, and how their ideas got transformed as others added panels.
  3. What works story-wise: where did participants help each other build interesting ideas?
  4. Can anyone point to a comic that could be improved (made clearer, funnier, more poetic) by some slight changes?

Optional: make sets of photocopies for the group to take home, or you could even make the completed comics into a more elaborate “minicomics” project.

Or: refer to Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, “Directed Jam Comic” (p. 13) and have your group do one of the follow up activities, “Editing” or “Phoenix Comic”.


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