Lesson plans

Teaching Comics to Teens Week 2 Day 1: Gag me with a ‘toon

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

Our first art project: Gag cartoons!

In DWWP, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden begin with this basic unit of comic art—the single panel cartoon. This approach only makes sense, and I utilize it as well. Comic art, as we will see, offers the artist an enormous amount of choices. Starting students off with this bite-size format is a good way to get them thinking about some of these choices in a manageable way. It also affords the teacher the opportunity to begin introducing the basic elements of the comic art form.

Objective: Experimenting with Gag Cartoons

Do Now: Draw a one-panel cartoon of what you did over the weekend.

As always, circulate around the room and see what your students are doing. They likely won’t be drawing gag cartoons per se, which is fine. You didn’t ask them to. If you see something noteworthy, don’t be afraid to say so.


  • Teacher will distribute visual reference.

In my case, as I make my rounds, I leave some old copies of the The New Yorker on each table. Students will naturally start flipping through them.

  • Class discussion based on the Do Now and visual reference.
  • Teacher will introduce gag cartoons.

After briefly discussing some of their work from the Do Now, I ask my students if any of them are familiar with The New Yorker (yes, yes, I know—asking teens if they are familiar with a literary magazine—print no less!—is like asking them if they’re fans of Jack Benny. But sometimes they’ll surprise you.) After briefly discussing its cultural import, I mention that it is the premiere venue for gag cartoons. Indeed most people’s conception of gag cartoons is probably informed by the type of work that appears in The New Yorker. I then elicit a definition of what a gag cartoon is from the class. (As most teachers know, knowledge that students construct themselves is generally more important to them than that which is spoon-fed.)

Next I present some different approaches to gag cartoons. (Note: for visual presentations I often use a Smartboard, a high-tech, interactive iteration of the classic chalkboard. If one isn’t available, a Powerpoint presentation or some other method is fine. As we’ll see, I differentiate my mode of presentation—handouts, drawing demo w/ a marker on a large pad, digital—based on what works best for a given lesson.)

Again, there are thousands upon thousands of examples to choose from. Here are some I use:

A play on words from noted gag cartoonist Mike Lynch:

In addition to being a first rate cartoonist, Mike is a veritable font of knowledge on the history of his profession. (Be sure to check out the blog on his website:  http://www.mikelynchcartoons.com/ )

Next, a juxtaposition in tone from master of the macabre Charles Addams:

Addams is of course the seminal creator of the Addams Family as well as an inspiration to Tim Burton, Gahan Wilson and all those who dwell in the space where Dark meets Funny.

Next, the legendary Gary Larson, an artist who has gag cartoons down to a science (literally – his work has appeared in natural history museums and scientific journals).

In his musings on the relationship between man, nature and the cosmos in general, his work tends to linger in the mind, and at times approaches the profundity of Art with a capital “A”. Not bad for a one-panel bit of funny.

Finally, returning to the gutter of “low-art” we have Doug Bratton’s gleefully twisted “Pop Culture Shock Therapy”, the type of postmodern mash up of beloved kitsch that’s so popular with the kids nowadays.

Check out his website. (But be forewarned: it’s not all kid-friendly.) http://www.popculturecomics.com/index.php


For those unfamiliar, every week The New Yorker provides its readers with a drawing and challenges them to write a caption for it. Here’s the link:


I always give them two examples to work with in order to avoid the “I’m stuck” excuse. I tell them to come up with captions for both examples (figuring at least one will be decent). This also gets them into the habit of not settling for their first idea (an important aspect of any creative endeavor). I give them about 5 minutes to complete the task. As they’re working, I circulate around the room looking for particularly effective responses and cajoling the reluctant and recalcitrant. I also inform them that they will be hanging up their work momentarily to increase their motivation.

Here are some images I’ve used in the past:

And here are examples of student responses (typed for legibility):

(I’d love to actually submit some of this stuff to The New Yorker, but alas, you must be 18 in order to play.)

  • Students will hang up their work.

After time is up, I have students tape their work up on a wall (have multiple roles of tape or this will take forever).

  • Students will read each other’s responses.

I usually allow a couple of minutes for this.

They will choose two of their favorites to discuss.

They choose two in order to avoid the “my choice already got picked” excuse during the discussion. They’re also not allowed to choose their own.

  • Students will engage in a class critique of the exercise. Students will discuss their favorites and analyze why they are successful. Were there any trends in terms of the responses? What were some of the different approaches?

A lot of pertinent points will be raised in the discussion: unexpected juxtaposition, shifts in tone from one response to another, clever plays on words, etc. As you wrap up, instruct students to keep these in mind as they begin their first project tomorrow—their very own gag cartoon!

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.)


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