Teaching Comics to Kids

For the last five years I've taught a class on comic illustration for kids at my local Recreation and Parks Departments. It's a fantastic way to contribute to the community and pass along an interest in the comics medium to kids who wouldn't normally have a chance to exercise their skill and interests. The class is designed for kids aged 9-16 and runs for 6 one-hour sessions. I offer these class examples in the hopes that you may use it as a springboard for a class in your own area. It's in our best interest to get young people aware and interested in comics as a medium while they have a passing interest in it as a genre.

Over the years, I've found that the biggest hurdle for young kids in drawing comics is their ability to draw in general. Much of their frustrations in making visual narratives lie solely in their abilities to render those ideas as they envision them in their imaginations. And for this reason, we spend the majority of our class time discussing and improving on basic drawings skills. In fact, the first 4 weeks is spent on drawing the figure (including separate class time devoted to drawing heads and hands) and 1, 2, and 3 point perspective. Before we ever make a comic, we attempt to cover the basics of good drawing, how to make a good line, how to diminish their natural tendency to "chicken scratch", how to hold their pencil lightly and sketch, and not be afraid to draw through a form or figure to understand it's underlying shape. Tenets of good composition are included, as well as other drawing concerns like weight and proportion. You would assume that focusing on something other than making comics from the outset would bore them, but this isn't the case. Most of the kids are invigorated and excited by the new ideas presented to them, and making comics falls temporarily by the wayside while we discuss drawing in a general. I think they can see an immediate boost in their drawings skills and this is enough to keep them interested as we move through the basic drawing portion of the lesson plan.

The final few weeks are spent making comics however, and turning our new found skills on the medium itself. We usually spend some time discussing comics in detail, we talk about what makes a good comic, and dispel the ideas that comics have to include super heros, or be funny, or any of the other usual genre restrictions associated with the medium. I usually ask them what their experience with comics has been like, whether they only know them from the newspaper, or from comics books, or from movies, cartoons and pop culture. We talk about wat comics they read, why they enjoy them, etc. Often the class is varied and each student has a different view of the medium which helps to inform the other students. One child may be only into Manga, while another only read Garfield in the paper and yet another has seen everyone of the Spiderman movies and cartoons. All of these perspectives on the thing we call "comics" helps them to realize that it truly is a medium, and open to many kinds of storytelling. We then proceed to talk about the more formal rules and tricks of comics, like Gutters, establishing shots, the use of forced perspective and how to make legible word balloons. We also discuss some techniques involved in panel arrangement, culminating in me drawing a quick comic page that we design on the spot to illustrate these points.

Finally, we set out to make comics both on our own and collaboratively, and we accomplish this with a few lessons they find entertaining and fun:


The straightforward single page

The first and most straightforward is for them to write and design a one page comic, using as many different themes and ideas we've discussed in the class as possible. They set out to create a comic narrative with the objective of showing 1,2 or 3 point perspective, as well as a full figure drawing, profile or head on, interesting panel arrangement to evoke emotion, etc. Each one of these things don't necessarily have to be present in the entire page, often the kids will find one or two things they've learned and stick to them. Either way, it's a success if they begin to draw outside of what they were previously capable of.

This project seems to be the most direct way to get them to show what they've learned and to put into action the topics we've just discussed. The only draw back to this lesson is that the stories created by the kids tend to be pretty flat because they are focused so much on the drawings. I've noticed that the boys tend to draw bank robberies and shootouts and the girls tend to fit in a great deal of interior scenes and word balloons. You could argue that the boy tend to make very compressed stories, where a great deal of action and time is condensed into a page and the girls tend to make much more decompressed narratives where very little time or physical actions take place. This is strictly my observation however, and I'm not aware of any other data to back it up.


Round Robins

The next exercise is a collaborative comic or a "round robin" exercise. We break into groups of 5 or more and each person draws a first panel then passes it to the next person. They seem to enjoy this project as it forces them to think of new narratives and helps them work with characters or ideas they are unfamiliar with. This exercise tends to force each child to work outside of their usual conventions and think of inventive ways of continuing another persons narrative. They often do drawings and make up story elements that they wouldn't have attempted otherwise. Consequently, the comics from this lesson tend to come off as more interesting than when the kids are left solely to their own ideas for a story. Each child seems challenged by their peers in the group and strives to be more inventive. As a humorous aside, Invariably the boys seem to fit in a machine gun and bank robbery and the girls tend to try and even it out with things like character development and interesting dialogue.


Clip Art Comics

Another class project, good for the final day, is creating clip art comics. Another comic teacher told me about this one and it's a pretty effective and entertaining exercise. Ask everyone to bring in a few magazines or provide enough to go around the class, and have them search through them for images to cut out and turn into comics. I've found that, like the round robin project, the kids tend to work at stories that they wouldn't have tackled on their own, but this time because the hurdles of art making are completely removed. The constraints of using only found images tends to force them to make connections between images that no one else would, and it gets them thinking in a completely different way. In the end, they create a comic where they have arrived at surprising and satisfying results. usually outside of their usual set of ideas about genres.

Each child in the class comes in with different ideas about what they want to learn. Some of them couldn't care less about perspective, some don't want to learn how to draw faces in profile, but would rather spend a class talking about horses. Some want to learn shading, some want to draw representationally, and increasingly more want to learn about drawing manga or cartooning. We do our best to approach each one of these topics in turn and as time allows. But more importantly, they leave the class with an somewhat improved skill-set, and a greater appreciation of the form and the possibilities that can be found in it. And also with an understanding of the fun to be found in making comics, no matter what kind of comics they make. This is the best lesson we can leave them with.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.

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