Comics like magic in five days

comics students get cracking

I’m just winding down an intense 5-day workshop at the University of Minnesota. A really committed (and cheerful) group of students meant it was huge fun, plus they’ve produced a mountain of new work in a very short time. But the intensity meant I didn’t have the time to blog as we went as I’d wanted to do.

But now that it’s over, here’s a quick wrap-up.

First of all, I based the class on the structure of my Wolfsonian (10 days) and Huntington Museum (3 days) classes, but of course split the difference in terms of time. Also, because this class is offered optionally for credit, there was a “pre-assignment” also, which was challenging. How do you ask students who may never have made comics to make comics before you teach them how? (I had them adapt a scene from Paul Auster’s City of Glass into thumbnails, then read the comic and compare…subject for another post.)

Highlights of the first couple of days:

1. Panel Lottery.

I find this to be such a productive activity: it demonstrates all kinds of transitions and the meaning of closure, it teaches the nature of a “scene”, it shows the value and method of editing, it shows how narrative builds and changes, often gets at the narrative arc, at least obliquely, and, bonus, it’s funny and gets the class talking and participating.

This particular lottery turned out tighter and more logical than most. The lesson: making decisions based on the needs of the story rather than panel-to-panel laffs makes for stronger storytelling. There might have been funnier individual transitions to make, but the whole story now has a punchline it might not have achieved had we gone for the cheapo.

2. Strip it down.

This is an activity where students do a tight thumbnail for a “daily strip.” It can be funny or not, as they please, but should use a kind of gag structure–set-up and punchline–ask a question and answer it surprisingly being the non-funny way of putting it). I haven’t had the opportunity to teach this particular assignment often, so it was great to get some practice. My take on it at the moment is that it’s in just the right place in DWWP, in chapter 3. Tech skills not necessary, and compositional challenges are relatively simplified because there’s just one tier. It’s tough, though, to be funny on demand in just one night. The critique on this was really great.

Jamie Penny managed to get done early enough to ink his strip.

Check out the rest of Jamie Penny’s great class work, including the thumbnail version of this strip, on his site.

3. Layout and lettering demos & the Pictureless Comic.

The Comic with no Pictures is another project I keep returning to. Not only does it lock those technical skills into place (of course you can do this without those tech skills, if you do only thumbs), but it really pushes students’ understanding of the syntax of comics, and is a great way to start looking at the compositional and clarity issues that come with a complex design like a comics page.


Barbara Haugen's circus comic

Roy T. Cook gets all meta on us

4. One-page comics.

After this, we plunged into a one page comic of completely open assignment (although I encouraged using funny/not-funny gag structure). Now, this kind of perform-on-demand openness can be disastrous for some students, but this week it just worked. Take a look at some of what they came up with.

Jenny Schmid's love of Eartha Kitt

Kristin Johnson and the Hulk

Young Andrew Cartooning


9 Comments to Comics like magic in five days

  • by Jamison Penny

    On July 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Taking this class was an amazing experience. Drawing comics in the midst of a group of classmates allowed us to feed off eachother’s creativity in a very productive way – so much different from the usual solitary experience of drawing comics. Not only did this class challenge me creatively, but it also challenged me to use some techniques and tools that I used to find intimidating – the nib pen and the Ames lettering guide are now my friends, and I learned that lowercase letters are perfectly OK to use in word balloons! :) Regardless of your level of skill and experience with comics, this class has a lot to offer.

  • by Barbara Haugen

    On July 18, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    I walked into this workshop a meek, mild-mannered (and, of course, bespectacled) person who had never made a comic in her life. Then bam! Pow! I was struck by the sheer talent of the teacher (Jessica) and the creativity of each of my classmates.

    After the birds-and-stars emanata stopped circling around my head, I found I had amazing super-powers–the same super-powers everyone in the world has, that is: our own ways of expressing ourselves through the medium of comics. While it’s a lot harder than it looks, it’s also a medium accessible and welcoming to absolutely everyone…even if (like me) the people you draw tend to look a bit like cooked pasta.

    Jessica is one of those rare people who not only can do something brilliantly herself, but also can explain to others how it’s done and inspire them to get better at it. Our assignments were useful and fun, and our critiques were thoughtful, detailed and also fun.

    In five intense, adventure-packed days (and nights–we really worked), we got all the tools we need to get started. Now, it’s up to each of us to use our powers for good. Can’t wait to see what everyone does next!

  • by Jessica

    On July 19, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Thanks Jamie and Barbara! You guys did ace work last week.

  • by Kristin Johnson

    On July 19, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for posting these Jessica! I just added this link to my Facebook page.

    My plan next week is to get a drafting table to use at home and keep working on new cartoons. What an awesome class this was! I knew pretty much nothing about graphic art at the beginning of the week and now I feel like I can actually draw cartoons ready to be printed. Thanks, Jessica! :)

  • by Karla Holland

    On July 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    I’ve said this maybe three times before I left but, I’m glad I made the trip. Your “panel lottery” and “pictureless comic” excercises helped me see how important certain elements were to comic panels and would determine it’s coherence. I’m looking at comic strip panels alot differently now. Thanks again.

    BTW, I found the DC Conspiracy.

  • by Jessica

    On July 25, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Great, Karla! Having hometown comics pals is the best way to keep making comics.

  • by Jenny

    On July 26, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    This was a great workshop. Jessica was so thorough and it left me with so much to continue to think about in terms of the connection of word and image, pacing and layout. A very inspiring week!

  • by Colette

    On July 28, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    What a wonderful workshop Jessica. I came knowing very little about comics. I left with a wealth of information that I will be able to share with my students. It was wonderful to share this experience with so many talented classmates. Thanks so much for a great week!

  • by Nick

    On August 3, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    I miss this already! Jessica, you were so helpful in my comics making process that I am now wishing for your eagle eye to penetrate the minute flaws in my comics’ flow as I’m doing thumbnails. This really inspired me to keep creating comics and sparked in me a love of the process. I am excited to see where I end up, as well as everyone else in the class. What an awesome experience all around.

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