Guest post: A five-week comics unit for teens

We welcome a new guest poster, Jess Worby, with this excellent lesson plan designed for older teens. 

This spring, I taught comics to an 11th grade studio art class at LOMA, a public art high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The students had already been taught life drawing, bookbinding, paper-making, and more. I based the lessons on insights about the students from the class teacher, Julie Roinos, which kept me from feeling as though I was walking blindly into the classroom dynamic.

I started the first class of each week with a presentation on some element of comics before diving into an assignment. Each week was comprised of two two-hour classes and one one-hour class. I tried to imbue each talk with a bit of comics history, as well as work by some contemporary greats.

Week 1

Talks: What Are Comics?, Cartoons
Assignments: Gag Cartoon, Two-Panel Comic

The first talk was on the basic elements and working definitions of comics. The students were not interested in hearing much about history and terminology. Not surprising. I presented a smattering of comics pages, including Lilli Carré, Hergé, Jaime Hernandez, and Eiichiro Oda.

Next, I presented a slideshow of gag cartoons by B. Kliban, Zachary Kanin, Brad Neely, and more. I threw an internet “meme” image in there to show that yes, those funny images with text are just like cartoons. The form is malleable.


Before we began making cartoons, I had all of the students take part in a New Yorker-style caption contest. They had mostly worked in more formal and craft-based visual art, so I think this exercise helped them loosen up and ease into working narratively with text and images.

The first assignment was to create a one-panel cartoon. I had shown them examples of different types of text-image interplay and humor to give them some background, but it took some students a while to develop an idea they liked.

I had planned to have them work on cartoons some more the next day, but decided to have them create two-panel comics about high school instead. This exercise puts the focus on simple panel transitions and mixing up compositions. The group discussion that followed helped bring these concepts home for the students who struggled with it. I highly recommend this assignment! Making your first full page of comics can be daunting. Simplifying it into two-panel chunks can help. Give it a simple theme, like Before and After.

Week 2

Talk: The Nitty-Gritty of Comics, Protocomics
Assignment: Foldy Minicomic

For this talk, I focused more on specific choices that comics creators are faced with, like panel transitions and choice of moment. I referred to Scott McCloud a bit here, and showed pages by Mike Mignola, Taiyo Matsumoto, Milo Manara, and Shaun Tan. I then talked a bit about early comics like The Yellow Kid and the work of Rodolphe Toepffer. I made this talk shorter, about twenty minutes, since the students reacted better to interactive activities than lectures.

Taking a tip from this post on DW-WP by Derek Mainhart, I asked the students to decode the narrative of a few “protocomics”, including The Last Judgment of Hu-Nefer, and Masaccio’s Tribute Money. I did so in a style similar to Visual Thinking Strategies, wherein I asked questions designed to get the students to arrive at their own explanations. I would recommend this exercise as a way of getting students to think about narrative in visual art and how it relates to comics. I think it would be helpful for any student of visual culture in general.

Next, we made a foldy mini-comic as in this post, combining it with the story card exercise from Appendix C of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. Each student was given a card for their character’s occupation, personality, physical attribute, and story spark (e.g., “doctor”, “sad”, “bald”, and “vacation”). I highly recommend using story cards for students’ first full-page comic. Even the students who found these constraints stifling at first were inventive with their stories. Some students even asked for me to give them story cards for the next assignment.

Jodie's "Giraffe Artist Studio"

The teacher suggested having them work in pairs, which some did, while others split up because they were excited about their own ideas. I encouraged them to draw out their character on a separate sheet first, which a few did, though a couple perfectionists got stuck on the character and redrew it over and over. Most students did a nice job with comics timing and utilizing the layout. I had them draw in pencil or ink on copy paper, no thumbnails or preliminary pencils, to get them into the habit of making things without getting too precious with them.

The sentiment I reiterated here was that this was probably not the last thing they would ever make, so getting overly tight or fearful was a waste of energy.

Week 3

Talk: Rhythm & Flow, Emanata
Assignment: One-Page Comic

I spoke to the students about panel flow, going into more detail about how panels add up to a page and good practices for placing text. A couple of the students insisted on a live reading of a Jaime Hernandez page, which was fun and made them think more about how text and expressions function in comics.

Nick and John reading a Jaime Hernandez page

I also talked a bit about emanata, and asked students to pick some out in pages from Peanuts and One Piece. I think the rhythm and flow stuff may have been a bit too much too soon, but speaking concretely about emanata seemed helpful; a lot of students started using it in their work.

Each student created a one-page comic on Bristol paper about mutations (no Transformers or Ninja Turtles, I said!). This theme works well (especially with teens) because physical transformation is easy to visualize sequentially. I left the process up to the students, but encouraged them to stick with a six-panel grid. The end products were great overall, though many struggled with composition and repeating poses.

Week 4

Talk: Form & Possibilities
Assignment: Thumbnailing & Penciling a Two-Page Comic

I figured they were all pretty tired of hearing me talk at this point, so for this presentation, I showed a slideshow of lots of very different comics pages, including work by James Kochalka, Chris Ware, and Ron Regé Jr. I had the students dissect pages by David Mazzucchelli and Connor Willumsen, specifically asking questions about the way the text interacted with the images.

page from Ron Rege Jr's Cartoon Utopia

The final project was for each student to create a two-page comic for inclusion in a class anthology. I asked them for the theme this time, eventually settling on dreams. I had them thumbnail and pencil these ones first, offering notes and revisions on each phase. Most teens are not crazy about planning, but I think they were able to see how the process improved the final product.

Week 5

Assignment: Inking the Two-Page Comic

I skipped the talk entirely for the final week. Most students chose to ink with Microns, though I encouraged them to use nibs and brushes. Some struggled with page proportions, despite me showing them the diagonal trick. Some kind of template might be good in the future. The final inked pages were really great, with a good number of pleasant surprises. I collected and printed everyone’s comics together in an anthology zine and gave them all a copy.

I think they really loved having this kind of physical collection of their work. The resulting anthology was excellent, full of mark-making and storytelling choices that came from unique perspectives. We went through the anthology together and discussed what worked and what could use improvement in each piece, which hopefully left them with food for thought. Scroll to the bottom to see some of the final work!



It was difficult to engage the students in the presentations, but they took to making comics fairly quickly. If I taught the class again, I might focus more on having them make lots of small things, to better push them through the various sticking points we came across, and spend less time on the talks. Breaking up the time and giving them lots of small deadlines is always good. On the other hand, if I had the same group of students again, I would absolutely push them to make their own mini-comics. They are ready.

I think the thing that really ignited the students’ imagination was the realization that comics are more than a craft, they are a way to tell their own story. They are not just answering questions on a test, or writing a form essay; they can say whatever they want, however they want (within reason, of course). And that’s powerful.

In terms of trends, the kids were all very accepting of each other, super into anime, and kind of lazy at times. I told them about how hard their favorite manga-ka work, often sleeping three hours a night and only taking breaks to eat. My hope is that they apply their new understanding of personal narrative and visual culture to their chosen path, and maybe even continue creating comics.


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– Jess Worby / /


2 Comments to Guest post: A five-week comics unit for teens

  • by Jonathan Bass

    On July 24, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Good stuff, Jess. Sounds like the “unit” went well. I especially like the bit about telling them “how hard their favorite manga-ka work, often sleeping three hours a night and only taking breaks to eat.”

    I used to start my semester with a variation on the two-panel exercise. I’d circulate a mix of comics panels, story illustrations, and other images, and then have the students create the before and after panels, usually working together in groups of two or three. I got some particularly good results from a picture of two children on a raft with a giant squirrel. Even though the squirrel was a friend of the children in the original, my students invariably made the squirrel the villain.

    I was wondering if, other than the week two comic, you had your students work collaboratively at all — and, if so, how that went?


  • by jess worby

    On July 27, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    Hey Jonathan!

    I thought about having them do exercises with pre-made comics panels, but decided to have them draw everything because it was good practice.

    I didn’t really have them do any other collaborative exercises. Julie, the teacher, was keen on them collaborating more, but pairing them up too often resulted in one person drawing and the other doing nothing. Sounds like the exercise you mentioned would have worked well as a collaboration though! Will consider it for next time.

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