Teaching comics to teens day 4: Cartooning through the ages

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


Cartooning Through the Ages!

I am a firm believer in exploring the rich history of the cartooning medium; not only for its own illustrious sake, but as a fount of inspiration for my students’ work. (I also admit that I love teaching it. Windsor McCay, Siegel and Shuster, The Fleischer Bros., why wouldn’t you teach it?)

Objective: Exploring Narrative Art

Do Now: If you could have been born in any other period in history, which would it be and why?


  • Class discussion based on the Do Now (this could prove useful for the Exercise later)
  • Teacher introduces the concept of narrative art and presents visual examples from Art History

As you can see, my first history lesson encompasses the larger concept of narrative art. The narrative impulse has been with humanity since the beginning, and I use art historical examples to illustrate the point. Since these works (masterpieces thought they are) are clearly evolutionary steps up to the world’s greatest art form (comics, natch), I frame these as proto-comics. There are, of course, a wealth of these images to choose from. Tailor it to your own interests (research is half the fun). Below are mine:

People were drawing stories well before they were writing them. Our example, Wounded Man and Disemboweled Bison from the famed cave paintings of Lascaux, presents a bit of a mystery. Is the man a shaman of some sort? The fact that he seems to have a beak, coupled with the staff below him, topped with a bird of some kind, would seem to support this. Note the exemplary detail on the bison: its fur bristles as it charges, even as it has been run through by a spear causing its intestines to spill out. The angle of the man suggests that he’s been gored by the bison. Is this then a depiction of a titanic battle between mighty warrior and ferocious beast? Or were these images produced completely independently of each other, perhaps centuries apart? Did some enterprising caveman see one of the figures and add the second to produce a narrative? Or is it a random juxtaposition that we are hard wired to read as a story? This lends itself to questions of editing, composition, mise-en-scene, persistence of vision and all sorts of interesting, comics related topics.

In any case, the clear depiction of certain anatomical features at least suggests that our subject was popular with the cave-ladies.

Our next example is The Last Judgment of Hu-Nefer from ancient Egypt. It tells of Hu-Nefer’s trial for entrance into the afterlife. Note the clear, easy-to-follow visual structure. The most interesting scene is probably lower left center. H-Nef’s soul is being weighed against a feather. If his soul is pure, and hence lighter, he passes to the next stage. If it is heavier though, he gets fed to Ammit, Devourer of the Sinful (sound like a Kirby villain) part lion, part crocodile, part hippopotamus (apparently the ancient Egyptians played Exquisite Corpse too). 

Our next stop is ancient Greece and Athena Battling Alkyoneos from the Altar of Zeus: a titanic, twisting melee between Goddesses and Giants (or as I like to call it: what Ray Harryhausen’s dreams looked like). Sculptures like this would later influence Michelangelo who would later later influence the heroic proportions of every superhero ever put to paper.

Let us proceed to medieval England, specifically its founding, the Battle of Hastings as thoroughly depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. At 230 ft., this extensive historical document (produced mostly by anonymous women) contains some 50 scenes of kings and knights, journeys and omens, pillage and plunder, with the kind of exacting detail that would make Peter Jackson proud.

On to the Renaissance, and Masaccio’s masterpiece, The Tribute Money. Here we have an interesting use of continuous narrative, as three sequential scenes are presented within one setting (an approach that has its uses in comics as well). The action actually starts in the middle as the composition leads you to Jesus’ head. He’s just been confronted by a tax collector (who appears twice). Jesus gestures to the sea (a move echoed by Peter, who appears three times) directing the viewer’s eye to the second scene: Peter finding coins in the mouth of a fish. We then proceed from far left to far right where the tax man is paid off. This careful leading of the eye is essential for anyone trying to work sequentially.

A similar effect is found in Michelangelo’s The Creation of the Sun, the Moon and the Plants. Btw, compare with Athena Battling Alkyoneos – toldja! God, soaring, all-powerful, Jewish; if there’s a better description of Superman, I’d like to hear it.

Which brings us to what can properly be called proto-comics; the pioneering work of Rodolphe Topffer (1799-1846).  This “Father of Sequential Art” was the first artist to consistently utilize panels and text in a storytelling mode that approximates modern comics. And the storytelling is wonderful. Our page, from The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (originally Historie de M. Vieux Bois) begins with a mordant Gorey-esque milieu before descending into madcap slapstick worthy of Tex Avery.

  • Teacher presents visual examples from Cartooning History that deal with various historical eras.

Next, I switch it up by showing examples of actual comics and how they’ve used different historical eras for inspiration. Again, there’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Some examples:

Want prehistoric mayhem? Try Tor by the legendary Joe Kubert

Ancient Greece? We have two varieties: Ultra-Violent via 300 by Frank Miller…

…and Intensively-Researched via Age of Bronze, Eric Shanower’s modern re-telling of the Trojan War

Vikings your thing? We’ve got them in funny (Asterix by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo) and tragic (Northlanders written by Brian Wood)

Prefer your Middle Ages more chivalrous? Prince Valiant, by the venerable Hal Foster, might be your cup of tea.

Fancy a bit of Victorian pastiche? Sample The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by the inimitable Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.  (If you’ve seen the movie, well, don’t let that stop you.)

If your idea of fun is the dissolution of society during the Weimar Republic, then Berlin by Jason Lutes is for you!

Not lighthearted enough? Swing into the 60’s with Bunny, published by Harvey Comics. “She’s Hip! She’s Mod! She’s the Queen of the In-Crowd!” A sober, authentic representation of a turbulent decade, to be sure. (Backup feature: “Sooper Hippie”!)

70’s comics are a terrific resource for your daily dose of nostalgic kitsch, as demonstrated with far-out flair by Spectacular Spider-Man issue 24, entitled “Spider-Man Night Fever”! (written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Frank Springer). Wonderful.

For something more authentic, try the landmark Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez, partially set in the punk scene of the early 1980’s.

Or for the Bizarro version, here’s Veronica #193.

It may seem like a lot of information but the above presentation should take no more than 15 min. (Rehearse it and time yourself first)

  • Exercise: Students will create a thumbnail sketch set in a specific historical era.

It can be in gag or strip form.

If students are stuck, remind them of their answer for the Do Now.

Why did they choose that particular era?

If class time in insufficient, it can be completed for homework.

The main point here is to widen students’ horizons to the type of material that can be explored, while beginning to foster an appreciation of the work that came before.

Here’s an example (thanks again Andy!):


The first week is usually a short one, so that wraps up Week 1.

As a teacher you should have accomplished the following objectives:

  • Set the tone for the class
  • Clearly communicated your expectations to the students
  • Engendered class discussion and possible group work
  • Sparked further interest in the subject matter
  • Saved the world

If you have done these, you can consider the first week a success. If not (if you’ll excuse the pun) it’s back to the drawing board.

Enjoy your weekend. It’s on to Week 2!

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.)


3 Comments to Teaching comics to teens day 4: Cartooning through the ages

  • by Corey Blake

    On May 15, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Great lesson and great overview of comics’ pre-history.

    Can you explain why you consider Rodolphe Topffer’s work proto-comics and not comics proper? While some of the narrative devices have evolved, it seems all of the pieces are there. Certainly the form was still evolving by Action Comics #1 and continued to evolve after that.

  • by Derek Mainhart

    On May 19, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    That’s a great question. There are a number of reasons. First, Topffer’s narratives don’t quite function as comics do. His work often consists of panels accompanied by explicative text. To be sure, this text is often wonderfully ironic (his work could almost be read as a series of related gag cartoons). But the effect is often more akin to a heavily illustrated text than what we think of as comics. Of course this point could be applied to any number of “comics proper”. Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant (which I also mention) is an example. A more recent one would be the discussion (largely academic) of whether Alison Bechdel’s superlative memoir “Fun Home” should technically be considered comics due to similar considerations. So the debate of what is and isn’t comics is a current one.

    A related argument is that the “language” of comics is much more than the union of words and pictures. Its lexicon includes many other aspects unique to it that don’t appear in Topffer’s work. A prominent example would be the great variety of symbols that comics employ to indicate movement, exertion, emotion, etc.; what Mort Walker coined “emanata” (DWWP p.8). However, as you correctly assert, the evolution of the form is ongoing – witness the absorption by American comics of the semiotic signifiers of manga.

    So perhaps, depending on your point of view, neither of the above arguments is entirely convincing. In the end, the best argument for labeling Topffer’s work as “proto-comics” is utilitarian. Historical defining and labeling is generally done for the sake of concision, cohesion and chronology. For example, the Renaissance began EXACTLY in the year 1400 and lasted until EXACTLY 1600. What then, do we make of Giotto, one of the greatest, most influential painters in history? Why he’s proto-Renaissance! Along these lines, it is useful to think of the “Comics Era” (CE) as beginning in the very late 19th century, coming into its own in the 20th and continuing (and hopefully prospering!) in the 21st. Topffer’s work then, falls outside of that purview.

    There is an additional advantage to this approach. To use the previous example, Giotto is often called “the Father of the Renaissance”. The designation “proto” comes to equal “innovator”. So, in separating Topffer from the Comics Era, we distinguish him. We mark him as the giant upon whose shoulders all subsequent cartoonists stand.

  • by Corey Blake

    On May 20, 2012 at 2:48 am

    Hi Derek,

    Thank you very much for such a detailed response. You make great points. Defining what is and isn’t comics is interesting to me, even though it can feel very slippery and subjective, and I find my own opinions shifting. I’d love to see more of this, and perhaps more codifying of the elements that make up true comics (or sequential art).


Leave a reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

By submitting a comment here you grant Drawing Words Writing Pictures a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.