Teaching comics to teens day 2: Creating an exquisite corpse

This is part of a series of posts by Derek Mainhart—an entire year‘s curriculum for a comics class at the secondary level: middle school and high school. Follow us via rss, Facebook, or Twitter (buttons above to the right) to be informed when new posts go up. To search for all the posts by Derek, including all in this series, click here

So the first day of school was about starting to get to know your students (and vice versa). The second day will be about them getting to know each other. To this end, I like to have the class play a game called The Exquisite Corpse. Originally conceived by Andre Breton and the Surrealists, the game encourages group creativity through random chance (in my experience, kids love all things random).

So my Objective is simply:

Objective: Creating an Exquisite Corpse

Just the mystery of this weirdo objective may begin to intrigue them (“an exquisite corpse? What’s that?! Probably something with zombies…”).

To further prime them:

Do Now: Draw a hybrid creature

Though it may seem obvious, elicit some examples of hybrid creatures from the class. Make sure everyone understands what’s being asked of them. You will also start to see, based on their responses, which kids are into mythology, which are into Harry Potter and which have watched Napoleon Dynamite too many times (I always get “liger”).

You may also notice certain tendencies amongst some of your students:

  • The kid who is done in 30 seconds or less. To them I say, “Add more detail!”
  • The kid who spends minutes furiously drawing, erasing, and re-drawing that first eyeball, trying to get it just right. To them I say, “Stop sweating the details!”
  • The kid who sits there “thinking.” To them, “Well draw while you think! We’ve only got five minutes!”


  • Class discussion based on the Do Now
  • Teacher will introduce the Exquisite Corpse game
  • Teacher will demo the steps

Here’s a link with excellent step-by-step instructions on how to play:

  • Teacher will display visual examples of what a completed Exquisite Corpse might look like

These can be from a previous class (always save good examples) or, if you’re a new teacher, make one yourself. (Note to new teachers: When trying a new lesson, ALWAYS try it yourself FIRST. This will help you anticipate any problems your students might encounter. It will also help you to map out the process step by step.)

  • Teacher will divide students into groups of four

If you have an uneven number of students, don’t worry about it. As long as they keep passing to the left, it’s fine. They can also pass to another table if they have to.

(An aside: My students are already divided into groups of four. I assign seating on the first day. This prevents students from automatically sitting with their best friends. It also prevents anyone from feeling left out.)

  • Teacher will tell students when to start (“Ready…Set…GO!”).
  • Teacher will time each segment (3-4 min. for each body part should be enough)
  • Teacher will announce when to pass to the left

This can be something fun—a sound effect, or playing music while they’re drawing and shutting it off when it’s time to switch

  • Teacher will also remind students which part of the body they should all be working on (“All right, everyone should be on the lower torso.  Keep it clean, Jimmy!”)
  • Teacher will remind students not to peak at the previous segment. They’re only ruining the surprise for themselves!
  • At the end of the fourth segment, everyone unfolds the drawing to see what they and their classmates have wrought.

Walk around; take a look. There are always some surprises. Here are some examples:

(Looking at the third one, note how the head is not attached to the body. This is because the first person didn’t follow the rules and indicate to the next person where they should start. Still kinda works though.)

  • Brief Class Discussion—Where might this character live? Give it a name! What are the advantages of working collaboratively? Did you enjoy the random aspect of the game? Why or why not?

There are numerous advantages to this lesson. It encourages “outside-the-box” thinking. It gets students to begin thinking in terms of character and successful character design. And, most importantly, it promotes collaboration. As in most art classes (indeed, most classes in general) students will spend a great deal of their time working on their own personal projects. They should be encouraged to actively seek out feedback from their classmates. This “ice-breaker” on the second day is a step towards that goal.

  • Optional: Each student should take the drawing that they started and ink it.

I use this opportunity to begin discussing the role of inking in cartooning.  Each student will have a drawing in front of them with four distinct styles. Can they use inking to create unity in the drawing? It’s not just outlining! They should add texture, pattern, shading etc. They are not allowed to erase what anyone else has done however. They have to work with it! (There will be a formal lesson on inking later in the semester.)

  • Optional: Have the class vote on their favorite drawing (the most exquisite of the corpses) and make it the class mascot (This usually goes over very well with middle-school students. High school students, use your judgment)

Derek Mainhart is an art teacher at Deer Park High School and at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He has taught widely at many institutions such as Molloy College, Boricua College and Hofstra, among others. He teaches cartooning workshops in the greater New York area. In addition, he was the first Vice President of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in Manhattan, and was instrumental in the formation of its annual MoCCA Art Festival. He has organized and participated in numerous gallery exhibits in and around NYC. His self-published works include The Iraqi Tinies and W. He is married to web-cartoonist and fellow art teacher Ali Solomon. They live with their daughter in Forest Hills (not far from the house where Peter Parker grew up.)


6 Comments to Teaching comics to teens day 2: Creating an exquisite corpse

  • by Eli Mendoza

    On April 30, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I love the “frog” in the middle, especially his legs. Seems like a fun class.

  • by Melissa DeJesus

    On April 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Oh! I used to do this with my students. They’ve always loved it and it helped break the ice early in the semester!

  • by Derek Mainhart

    On May 2, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Fun for the students and fun for me

  • by Charlie

    On July 8, 2017 at 12:21 am

    What types of pens do you recommend for inking cartoons for beginner students. I am working with young, middle schoolers…Thank you in advance…

  • by Jessica

    On August 7, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Hi Charlie,

    In general, for younger students, I’d recommend keeping it simple. Uni-Ball type pigment ink pens are fine, as are fine-point pigment markers. You might want to have a few steel-nib dip pens available to play with and demonstrate, but the tech challenges might put a stop to students’ creativity before they start. It’s fine to start simple!

  • by Charlie

    On August 8, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Thank you. Good advice with the Uniballs for the middle schoolers, and then do nibs with older, slightly more experienced students in the fall.

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