Guest post: The jam comic: introducing comics in a writing classroom

Our latest guest post is by Jarod Rosello, whom I met on a very interesting visit to Penn State last year. Jarod was ringleader of a group of creative writing grad students, all of whom were interested in comics, and in particular, in how to incorporate comics into their teaching of freshman comp and other undergrad writing courses. Most of them were enthusiastic but hadn’t tried anything yet. Jarod had field-tested several activities, of which this is one. I’m thrilled to have his contribution here at DWWP, and hope he’ll return soon.


I use the jam comic every semester in my writing classes to introduce comics to my students. My classroom is made up of a random sampling of incoming first-year students at Penn State. This writing class is a required first-year course. My students are never artists, are always timid and shy about their drawing abilities, and have very little or no experience with comics (most of my students say they have never even held a comic book before!). But the jam comic lets us jump right into sequential art in a way that promotes creativity and removes the academic pressure of what my students believe they ought to be doing in a college classroom. I like to think of the jam comic as a kind of secret weapon against the stuffiness of academia: I can pull it out at any moment, in any class, and the classroom instantly turns into a place of play and creativity. I’ve done the jam comic in all sorts of settings: when invited to other courses to talk about comics, in middle and elementary schools, at hour-long community comics workshops, and in college-level writing classes. It always works. Always. There are two things I have complete faith in: Groo will always sink the ship he’s on and the jam comic activity will always be awesome.

Pre-drawing Activity: Working on Relationships

Because my class is not a comics class or an art class (and because my students are hesitant and tentative when it comes to drawing), I always preface each comic activity with mini-activities and discussion of comics. I can’t assume that my students will know anything about comics; not placement of word balloons or captions, or how to use the space within a panel. And while they do seem to have a rather sophisticated sense of visual composition, their knowledge lies more in identifying than in recalling and applying.

I began the jam comics lesson by discussing the relationship between words and images in comics. I think this is a good place to start in a writing classroom where the students are already language-dominant. They’re thinking about words and sentences (and have been all semester), so it only makes sense to use what they’re comfortable with to move into something they are not. So, before we make comics, we work on learning about how words and images work together in comics.

Literal Relationships vs. Metaphorical Relationships

For homework, we read Alex Holden’s comic “West Side Improvements” from Brandon Buford’s Syncopated anthology—a book I have used for the last three semesters because it perfectly meets the requirements of the readings for this class: nonfiction essays. “West Side Improvements” tells the true story of improvements made to Riverside Park in New York City and the inadvertant creation of an underground graffiti movement and colony in the abandoned railroad tracks under the park. In my classroom, I need to find ways to bridge writing and comics using the principles they’ve already learned and finding the counterpoint in comics. This involves the creation of applicable terminology.

I started off the class by discussing what I identified as two different kinds of relationships images and words have in “West Side Improvements” (and in comics, in general). The first is a Literal Relationship: the drawing in the panel illustrates (and augments) what is written in the caption, in a way that adds depth of understanding to the entire panel.

Literal Relationship: The caption introduces three characters by name, and the drawing illustrates those characters (in a particular setting) as a way of reinforcing the information and making the characters seem more real and alive than just names.

The second relationship is a Metaphorical Relationship: the image is highly representational and often paired with a caption that explains an abstract idea or that spans a great amount of time, and the juxtaposition of both increases the understanding of the idea expressed in the panel.

Metaphorical Relationship: fundraising that may have taken months or years to complete is represented in this single panel. There’s also a certain connotation associated with a pile of money and people in suits throwing them down. There’s more than just information being transferred in this panel. There are emotions and ideas that are unwritten as well.

After briefly explaining the terms, I divided my students into groups of three to search through the rest of the comic to analyze the use of the two different types of panels and determine what are the strengths of each. (Or: Why did the cartoonist use a literal or metaphorical relationship and what effect does it have on the reader?) This way, my students learn by discovery and by paying close attention. I allowed ten minutes for this assignment and told my students we would meet back as a class and put all our ideas together in a large list. While they worked in groups, I wrote the words LITERAL and METAPHORICAL on the board with enough space around each of the words to create clusters (a technique Dr. Gabriele Lusser-Rico writes about in Writing the Natural Way, which helps students tap into their right brain when writing).

When we regrouped at the end of the ten minutes, I asked each of the groups to just tell me some of the things they discussed. (This is a great time in the class to encourage the yelling out of answers). What they came up with was, more or less, what I would have told them had I attempted to transmit this information to them directly, except they discovered it for themselves:

Panels with Literal Relationships

  1. Help establish character
  2. Show objects that are difficult to desribe and make them real and specific
  3. Reinforce the ideas or themes expressed in the panel and comic
  4. Make the story believable

Panels with Metaphorical Relationships

  1. Help the reader understand complex ideas
  2. Consolidate many events that happened over a long period of time
  3. Turn abstractions into icons and make them readable and accessible

The skills needed to make a good comic are the same as those needed to write a good essay or a good story. A comic looks different than prose, but operates on the same principles. By this time in the semester, my students are familiar with being literal and using metaphors properly. They understand the importance of concrete, vivid writing (though I admit that skill seems to take almost all semester to truly develop). Using comics, I can literally show them visual representations of some of the principles we’ve been discussing all semester. And these writing principles will only help them in any of their other classes.

Optional Quick Drawing Exercise: Word and Image Relationships

You can further your students’ understanding of the relationship between words and images by having them make both types of relationships from one caption.

1.   Respond to the following prompt (or a prompt like it that uses some other abstraction like  love, want, desire, hate):

“I (used to/want to) believe…”

Encourage them to complete the idea in either one sentence or one phrase.

2.   Create one single image (one panel) with a drawing that works literally with the phrase.

3.   Take the same phrase, but draw a picture that works metaphorically. (Metaphorically always seems harder, but isn’t actually harder. I’ve noticed that my students tend to come up with some creative and surprising drawings rather quickly.)

You might then discuss how your students needed to think about the words they’d written when thinking of a drawing to go along with the words. You might discuss how a metaphorical image works with an abstract idea like belief. Finally, see if you can come to some consensus on which relationships worked best and why.

Pay it (All the Way) Forward

I decided to use the Pay it Forward form of the directed jam comic (DWWP Chapter 1, Extra Credit) as our class’s first real foray into the making of comics. Before this, we had drawn and created faux-cartoons, but this would be our first attempt at sequential art. The pay it forward jam comic works by having each cartoonist (and I refer to my students as cartoonists when we’re making comics) drawing the picture in one panel and the caption for the following panel, and then passing it around, so that each panel will have a caption and it’s up to each cartoonist to decide what kind of relationship the words and images will have, and how best to use both together. I modified these instructions to have the original cartoonist write all the captions. But, because these students had little experience with comics (and even less confidence in their ability to make one), we worked slowly on getting captions written in a comic format. Once the pre-writing is done, though, the actual jam comic goes quickly. When it comes to drawing, even my least confident students seemed to need no instruction at all.

Here’s what I did:

    1. I had my students respond to the following prompt in three or four sentences:

People don’t know this about me, but…”

I purposefully chose a prompt that was personal and intimate. The students can then decide for themselves  their level of intimacy with the prompt: how serious or silly they want their responses to be. But this at least gives students an opportunity to say something in their own voices. (I always assure them that this assignment will be done anonymously, so no one knows who has written the original caption.)

  1. I had my students chop up their sentence to be spread out over nine panels. I required that every panel have at least one caption, but reminded them that they could put captions anywhere within the panel, not just at the top.
  2. I collected all the captioned comics, shuffled them around on a table and passed them back out.
  3. I gave my students about three or four minutes per panel (I shortened this time as the activity went on and they became more comfortable) and then had them pass their comic to their left. ( I also participated in the jam comic. I’ve noticed that when I participate in the writing or drawing activities with them, they seem more willing to participate).
  4. After the ninth student finished drawing, I had them put the finished comics up on a table for viewing.

The jam comic took about forty-five minutes to complete. Here are some of the finished products:

Why the Jam Comic?

When I first had my students do a jam comic in my writing class, I had very little pedagogical reason for doing it, other than that I thought it would be fun. Okay, so I guess that’s no pedagogical reason. But I continued to do it, because I learned a few things that first time. There was a kind of excitement in my classroom that had never existed before. I like to think of myself as a dynamic teacher, but no other lesson I had taught before (regardless of how brilliant I believed it to be) had ever elicited this kind of interest. It’s a hard thing to describe the look of a student who is completely engaged in an activity, but it’s some combination of bravery and humor. There’s lots of really confident smiling happening.

As a writing teacher I have charged myself with the duty of emboldening my students. Yes, I want them to write well. But I want them to also see that they have a voice of their own and what they think and feel and believe is valuable and should be heard. Too many first-year students arrive on college campuses stripped of any confidence. I don’t know if it’s the school system or the mythology of schools, students, and teachers that leads them to behave in this way, but every student I have ever come by is creative, innovative, interesting, and funny. They don’t often believe this about themselves, and that always makes me sad. But that self-consciousness disappears, quickly, when we draw the jam comic. I think part of this has to do with the fact that drawing cannot be quantified. It cannot be measured, and so there’s nothing they ought to be doing, no rules to follow. And if there are no rules, then anything goes. That freedom always leads to great things: writing and drawing and thinking.

I want to believe that making a jam comic subverts the expectations of my students and changes what they believe to be a standard classroom. It rewards play and creativity and freedom of expression. After the jam comic, my classroom is never the same. The writing becomes more personal and intimate. The sentences my students write just sound better, too. Of course, as their teacher, it’s my job to keep up this atmosphere: lots of drawing and lots of comics. And that’s okay with me.

Here are some photos of playing in college:


Something hilarious must have just happened. Probably jam comic related hilarity.

Alyssa with the jam comic she started.

Looking over the finished jam comics

Allie and Emily learned they both share a love for giraffes through the jam comic activity. Yet another example of how comics bring people together.

High five for the jam comic! Okay, so this one is a reenactment, but still true in its representation of the fun and excitement in our classroom.

By day, Jarod Rosello is a PhD student in curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches undergraduate courses in writing and education. At night he makes mini-comics. You can contact Jarod through his website or by email at


2 Comments to Guest post: The jam comic: introducing comics in a writing classroom

  • by Charlotte

    On August 23, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    I’ve seen Jarod in action with this activity, and it works extremely well. Thanks, Jarod, for going into such detail!

  • by jahhdog

    On September 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Yes I like this method too.

    It get’s the creative juices flowing and shows people that “I/they can create comic too!!!”


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