Monday, December 14, 2009

Comics Exercises

I've been wondering what resource I might recommend which wouldn't step on the toes or unnecessarily overlap all of the other wonderful sites offered up on this blog. Based on my rigorous research of at least 25 minutes, it seems like there are more legitimate online resources for poetry (prompts, examples, readings, etc) than for fiction and more for fiction than nonfiction. I assume this is due to the fact that it's easier to get away with publishing one poem than an excerpt from a collection of stories or essays. Or is it perhaps because poetry is the first genre people turn to when they think about writing groups? Perhaps it is the form which most readily lends itself to restrictions of time? I think there are other reasons, but I'm not sure how to put words to them without sounding like I'm making some obtuse assumptions. Anyway, I'm getting away from my point.

I was thinking about genres. Then...

What about comics? I an after-thought, and then immediately felt disgusted with myself for not having thought of that first. Because sadly, even though comics have been enjoying a burgeoning popularity for the past few decades (within and without academia), they still seem to occupy that after-thought space. There's poetry, fiction, nonfiction....oh yeah, and comics. On the bright side, at least people are starting to say “comics” instead of “graphic novels,” finally understanding that adding the word “novel” to a piece of work doesn't make it any more worthy of scholarly attention. What hooey. From now on, I'm going to call my grocery lists “nourishment novels” so that, by the time I get to the store, I don't dare doubt the exigence of my earlier demand for peanut-butter filled pretzels. This is serious stuff.

Again, I am getting away from my point. The problem is not that poetry, fiction, and nonfiction had a head start. I refer you to the first few pages of Scott McCloud's incredible Understanding Comics for an argument about the age of the graphic narrative. (Or go here to see what you would be missing by not referring to it.) Perhaps the three traditional genres had a head start in academic circles? I don't have the knowledge to make claims here. But I do know that comics is a genre which is still struggling to find its place in academic departments. Is it an Arts class? Literature? Composition? I would argue, rather unhelpfully, that the genre exists in between them. Its position remains unresolved. Maybe that's part of what makes comics so interesting.

Regardless of its place in academia, I like to make room for comics in my own field (Creative Writing) because I think a lot of its philosophies, techniques, and vocabulary translate into the language of composition in ways that only improve my understanding of the craft. I especially appreciate the kinds of connections that comics teaches the artist to create. Connections between image and language. Between concrete and abstract. Between time and real-time. Between white space and ink. Between artist and writer.

Here's the catch. While a google search of “poetry/fiction/nonfiction exercise” yields pages and pages of incredibly useful material, a google search of “comics exercise” yields top-hits that take you to cartoons about fitness and working-out. Oh. That form of exercise.

Because, in spite of the flourishing world of comics, there still isn't a lot of material out there about teaching the genre; for the newcomer, this can be especially intimidating. I know. I'm a newcomer. And I'm especially intimidated.

Here's what I recommend: Read Will Eisner's Graphic Storytelling, read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, read Jessica Abel and Matt Madden's Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. Then read “How to Read Nancy” by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik. Because it is hilarious. And because it will have you appreciating the (seemingly) smallest of decisions. The books by Eisner and McCloud explain the theory and history of comics. Abel and Madden's textbook actually gets into a pedagogical approach to the genre. If you don't want to purchase it (which you should, you really should), the supplementary website for this textbook is fantastic. It offers everything from sample exercises to homework assignments to teaching guides. If you've ever scoured the web for good comics prompts, you will understand how rare this resource is.

Above all, I would recommend any who are interested in comics (teaching or creating) not to fear it, not to think yourself unworthy of introducing it to a class or beginning your own because you think you know too little. The genre rewards personal experience, personal style, personal interpretation, personal taste, and personality. And while you may feel quite alone in your endeavor (thanks, google search), there is a thriving community, eager to share what they know and to hear what you have to say. You just need to start listening, start looking.

As a random side-note, Penn State University professor and comics artist, Jarod Rosello, successfully introduces comics into his Creative Writing and Rhetoric and Composition courses. A happy outcome of this is a blog he has just started (Art Cards) which features student work interacting with everyday environments. Check it out. Put some art on some cards.

And happy exploring.

P.S. The title to this post is my attempt to usurp the google search results for "comics exercise" from links to cartoons about fitness. Join me in the good fight; post your own comics exercises.


  1. "Logicomix is a must read, then...
    alecos papadatos

  2. Jarod Rosello (mentioned above) referred me to this site:
    Just browsing through it has given me some great ideas. This site is a great example of how energetic and welcoming the comics community is.

  3. I'd like to second Andrea's enthusiasm for teaching comics; while I have only limited (one) experience trying this, I had my students team-write a nine-panel comic by passing the sheet between them, each writing one frame at a time. This was during our fiction unit, and I used the movement from panel to panel as a means to discuss the narrative arc. The conversation went really well, the students had fun, and everyone (myself included) welcomed comics as a legitimate part of the creative writing discussion.

    And I also second Jarod Rosello's blog and experience and art--check him out! I used his empty panels in my class.

  4. Yes, yes, we can all agree that Jarod is a superior entity. And yes, comics can be wonderful. My one experience, however, with a similar exercise, failed horribly. I attribute this not to the ineffectiveness of a comics prompt, but my lack of appropriate introduction. I think you need to float the idea (maybe nail it down?) that comics are legitimate before trying to do them. Without that, you might end up with,as I did, too many panels about poop and sex, and, just as bad, student propensity toward non sequitur shifts between panels.