Lesson plans

Teaching comics to teens week 2 day 2: “The Horror!”

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

Yesterday we introduced gag cartoons, displayed visual examples and got students’ minds working. Now comes the hardest part:

Objective: Come up with at least two separate ideas for your Gag Cartoon.


  • Class will review the definition of a gag cartoon and key points from yesterday’s Class Discussion
  • Students will draw at least two separate thumbnail sketches for their Gag Cartoon.

Early in Mastering Comics, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden discuss ‘the Horror of the Blank Page’ (Chapter 2). Every artist who has ever put pen to paper has felt it, and likely some of your students will be feeling it now. To be sure, some students will be bursting with so many ideas that their biggest struggle will be just getting them all down. That’s great. Let them run. But inevitably there will be those students with faces as blank as the page before them.

As a teacher, there are any number of strategies you can employ to encourage them. You could give them the handout you made of yesterday’s visual presentation (you made those, didn’t you?). You could point them to a particular tome of gag cartoons from your classroom library (you’re building one, aren’t you?). You could even let your 21st century media sponges surf the internet for inspiration (just keep an eye on them). But perhaps the best advice you could give is the suggestion Abel and Madden give at the start of MC : “Just Start Drawing” (Chapter 1).

Again, I have them generate at least two thumbnail sketches so they’re not settling for their first idea. (Teenagers can be an unmotivated, lazy lot.) Walk around the class, gauging progress. When a student is ready, begin individual discussions.

  • Teacher will individually discuss ideas with students. Together they will choose which sketch will be the basis for the student’s eventual finished project.

As a Cartooning teacher, one of the many hats you’ll be wearing, all year long, is that of Editor. As you review the two sketches (at least!) of your student, there will probably be one idea that is clearly better. More than likely, they will already have made this determination for themselves. However, if they have not, part of your job is to try and nudge the student in that direction. The trick is to try to have them arrive at that conclusion themselves. Ask leading questions:

  • Which sketch functions the way a gag cartoon should?
  • Is one idea more original than the other?
  • Which is simply funnier?

In the end, however, it’s the student’s choice. If they prefer the “lesser” idea, so be it.

  • Student will revise their chosen sketch based on individual discussion.

Once they’ve made their decision, their next step is to improve it. Help the student zero in on what makes the gag work and then suggest ways to emphasize it. Again, ask questions to help them arrive at the answers themselves. Some questions you might ask:

  • What EXACTLY is the joke here?
  • How is it being conveyed?
  • How can we make it clearer?
  • Does the caption help to make the point? Or does it need to be more concise?
  • What part of the drawing should we emphasize? Are there distracting details?

(These last two questions will be reinforced in a drawing lesson in the very near future.)

Here’s an example of a thumbnail sketch after revision (courtesy of Matt Keegan):

The idea is clear, the text (this time included within the panel as opposed to a caption underneath) is concise and the background has just enough detail to give the viewer a sense of setting without being distracting.

Remember, you’re doing this with each student. The whole process, from choosing which idea to develop to suggesting possible revisions, should take 2-3 minutes tops. (Just remember to take the occasional lap around the room to make sure everyone’s on task.) Depending on the size of your class, you may not be able to discuss each student’s work in one class period. Don’t worry about it. You’ll have more time as they’re working tomorrow, especially after you’ve thrown a wrench into the works – Anti-Gag Cartoons!

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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