Comics library

Teaching Comics to Teens week 2 day 3: How Not To Be Funny

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 after spending yesterday helping my students struggle with their nascent, shaky ideas, revising, reworking and shaping them according to the fundamentals that make gag cartoons work, what do I do? Introduce Anti-Gag Cartoons of course! Keep ‘em off balance, that’s what I say!

Objective: Sketching ideas for an Anti-Gag Cartoon

Do Now: How can a joke be ruined?


  • Class discussion based on the Do Now.

Elicit responses concerning what ruins a joke. Ask leading questions like, “Does anyone have a friend that can’t tell a joke?” Some responses might include, “They tell it wrong, they give away the punchline, there is no punchline, they have to explain it.” As we’ll see, Anti-Gag cartoons work along similar lines.

  •  Teacher will introduce Anti-Gag cartoons using visual examples.

In DWWP, Abel and Madden discuss various types of image/text juxtapositions within the single panel format (traditional gag cartoons are just one approach). One of the more intriguing examples is from comics innovator David Mazzucchelli (Chapter 2, p. 18). Due to the mysterious nature of the drawing and the lack of a punchline, they refer to it as an “anti-cartoon”. For the purposes of this unit, I refer to such comics as “anti-gag cartoons” and turn to the master of such obfuscating doodles, Mark Newgarden.

Newgarden is an innovator whose pioneering work was featured in Art Spiegelman’s legendary anthology RAW in the 1980’s. You can check out his current work at his website.

However, the best way to introduce him to your students might be by invoking his best-known creation: “Have you guys heard of the Garbage Pail Kids?” (Amongst those who have, his work will attain immediate cache.)

The Anti-Gag examples below are all taken from the excellent collection of his work We All Die Alone (Fantgraphics). Sounds like a barrel of laughs right? Speaking of which:

  •  Teacher will lead discussion in which class will analyze various examples

(Analyzing humor? Now there’s a way to kill it!)


Mark Newgarden

What’s funny about this cartoon? (The noses, the drawing) What’s not funny? (The depressing caption) Why is it not funny?

In this example, Newgarden plays with common gag clichés; the hobo on the corner, the drunk at the bar, the desert island. How does he subvert the humor here? (Among other things, the captions state the obvious.)

Who are the two men in the background? How is the joke ruined? (by needless additions brought about by  committee thinking. Or as they’re called in the entertainment industry, “notes”)

What’s ‘wrong’ here? (If brevity is the soul of wit, then this extended, cutting monologue is the soul of pathos.)

And here he channels his inner Magritte.


Are some of these cartoons funny in a way? Humor usually deals with the unexpected. These certainly qualify on that count. And humor is, of course, subjective. These are ironic, a tad morbid, and, by forcing us to look beyond the surface, perhaps even profound. Whether or not one finds them funny, they certainly provoke a reaction.

  • Exercise: Students will attempt an anti-gag cartoon.

Make sure to circulate the room, gleefully exhorting them to not be funny!

Here’s a student example. Ironically deconstructing cliche? Well done! (thanks Andy!)

Tomorrow: Back to the Drawing Board!


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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