Classroom anecdote: where to begin?

I just finished teaching my continuing education class, “Comics Storytelling“, at the School of Visual Arts, and I’d like to share this story from earlier on in the semester. One of my assignments is to draw a comic about an accident (you can find it in DWWP, p. 225). My student Becky Hawkins brought in some thumbnails that were really a series of first pages—attempts at figuring out how to start the story.

1. The first page one was a framing set-up that would lead into a flashback: a normal day on the cruise ship where Becky works as a musician (it’s not your everyday career, is it?) but in the last  panel we see her smiling yet covered with scars from an as-yet-unexplained accident:

2. The second idea for a page one was very “in medias res”: Becky is on a quad bike with her co-workers and the narration expresses her unease and sense of impending disaster culminating with her losing control of the bike in the last panel. This suggests the rest of the comic will be a detailed aftermath of the accident:

3. The third idea was the most dramatic: we would open with an extreme close-up of dripping blood and zoom out slowly to reveal a subjective shot of Becky coming to after crashing into a thorny bush on her quad bike:

All of these are possible and even promising ways to start a story. We talked about the relative merits of each one and decided that 3. was exciting but maybe too intense for the tenor of the rest of the story, and that 2. was perfectly good but a little prosaic as an opener–a little too “cut to the chase”. The first scenario, of Becky arriving back at the ship on a tropical island, set the scene perhaps best: it tells us where we are and that leads us to believe all is well until we see the expression change on the steward’s face. The final panel of Becky, scarred and smiling, begs the obvious question, “what in the world happened to her?” and enacts one of the key functions of the last panel of any page, that of virtually forcing the reader to turn the page and keep reading.

What was most interesting though was that as we talked, we realized that the remaining two pages didn’t need to end up on the cutting room floor. In fact, each of these pages contained key stages of the story that were already in good shape to be used in the comic: the second scenario worked perfectly well as a second page of the story. Now its prosaic nature was it’s strength: once you’ve grabbed the reader’s attention you can feed her a bit of expository information to set the scene for the action to come. In the same way, the third scenario worked quite well as a third page in the story: the aftermath of the accident. Becky hadn’t sketched these pages out in deliberate sequence, but somehow, whether unconsciously or through coincidence, she had figured out how to tell her whole story in the course of struggling with the opening page.

Funny how these things happen. Creative solutions are rarely this easy, but I think this story points to the way sometimes your answer is right in front of you.

There was a fourth page that dealt with the aftermath of the accident and so, with a bunch of kneading and last minute edits, especially to the amount of narration, Becky found herself with a four-page comic.

You can read the finished story and other comics on Becky’s website.

The finished first page of Becky Hawkins's accident comic


1 Comment to Classroom anecdote: where to begin?

  • by Erin Rochlow

    On December 17, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Love Becky’s comics! She keeps all of us on ships laughing at her adventures and ourselves. Great to see her evolving as an artist!

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