Hey, everyone! It’s been a while!
I’m happy to be back with you all! To celebrate my return to the blog after a long while, I want to share a great classroom activity. I can’t take full credit for it. I found out about this cool activity from award-winning comic creator Steenz at a convention at which we were dropping knowledge…when conventions were still a thing. Please go give her a follow on Twitter and IG @oheysteenz
And while I switched it up a bit, the original activity that Steenz was sharing is fantastic!
Let’s run through what it is and how it can be helpful in any number of classroom situations.
Here’s the basic idea:
Take an already created comic strip or page and reverse engineer it by writing the script for the page or comic, as if you were the writer and you were working with an artist. Then you have someone else draw the strip or page from your script and you see how close the two of you got to the original.
This is a lesson in communication and detail. When scripting, you need to be as informative and detailed as possible to get the artist close to the original.
This activity featured below is in that shape that it is because I helped Shveta Miller with a few things, including this activity, for a book that she is writing called Hacking Graphic Novels which will be coming out later this year. I asked Shveta for a few words to promote the upcoming book, and this is what she had to say…
“Using comics in the classroom can certainly increase engagement, but the ultimate value is in using the form to develop students’ capacity to look with care, focus with intention, see possibilities in what is expressed or depicted, consider alternatives, ask increasingly nuanced questions, show their messy and unique thinking process, and bravely tell stories they would not have told in any other medium.”
“Shveta Miller wrote the book she wishes she had when she first taught a graphic novel in her high school English class in 2005. Hacking Graphic Novels is an essential resource whether you’ve never taught with comics or have been teaching visual texts for years. Offering inspiring solutions to common challenges with teaching comics and graphic novels, this book offers compelling exercises and approaches teachers can implement with their students tomorrow.”
I’m excited to read the book, but I’m a bit more excited to see the work of my students in the book. That’s right! We had actual high school art students help out with this demonstration.
Step one was for me to get a strip or page that I could use for the project. I reached out to one of my comic buddies Dan Dougherty (@beardocomics on IG) and asked him if I could use a cool page that he had posted to his IG. He said yes. Here is the original art that I used to write my script:
And here is the script that I wrote for the page to give to my students. Note: I know it’s long and detailed, but I wanted them to get as close to the original as possible. After my script, I’ll show you what the three students came up with!
This is a one page black and white comic set in the middle of space. There are no quotation marks in any of the dialogue or special effects lettering. That is just for notation.
The page is five panels.
The first panel at the top of the page is the largest. It takes up about 2/5 of the page.
The second panel is long and thin; it goes across the entire page and is about a third of the size of the first panel.
The last three panels are in a chunk at the bottom of the page about the size of the first panel, but the third panel is vertical and panels four and five are the same size and they are horizontal off of the vertical panel 3. The horizontal panels take up about 2/3 of the bottom chunk of the page, and the vertical panel about 1/3.
Panel 1: There is an astronaut floating on his back in the lower left of the panel. We cannot see his face, just his plain, white helmet visor. We see his entire body. No cables or anything attached to him. He’s just floating. He has two word bubbles. One above him: “Oh thank heavens, a ship! I’ve been out here for days!” And one just to the right of him: “Hello? Hello!!”
On the left side of the panel, we see a box-y spaceship approaching, still slightly off in the distance. Saturn with one solid ring appears to the upper left of the spaceship in the background. The ship has a rounded-pointy nose, a small upper fin, a small visible side fin, and we can see some bright fire coming from its small visible burner. Not much of the fire is visible. It extends to the right edge of the panel. The background is solid black with white dots and tiny white circles indicating stars.
Panel 2: This long panel is a close-up of the astronaut’s face in the middle of the panel. His word bubble takes up the left third of the panel: “I’m hungry and low on oxygen! Please HELP!” He looks to be white. We do not see much of him. The panel cuts off most of his mouth and his hair line. His head tilts to our right. Where his eyebrow would be on the right, we see a small reflection (in his visor) of the ship. The right side of the thin panel is just more space (see above).
Panel 3: This box-y vertical panel has the very front of the spaceship coming from the right side of the panel. We see the rounded, nose has flipped open, and extended out is a robotic arm with three visible joints and a two-claw hand holding a very simply drawn hamburger. There is dialogue coming from a small, shadowed figure seen in the windshield of the ship: “Help is coming!” These is a “KLAK” above the opened flap. And a “WRRR” under the extended robot arm. Background same as above.
Panel 4: On the left, we have a profile shot of the astronaut facing to the right. We see him from the upper chest up. We can see a little of his box-y backpack, and we can see his simple face and he is looking at the cheeseburger that is inches from his face. The burger is still held by the robot arm that is visible with two joints extended from the right side of the panel. There are two dialogue bubbles, and they take up the entire top of the panel. Above the astronaut: “A…cheeseburger?” Above the robot arm: “That was the first thing you said.” Background same as above.
Panel 5: This panel is below panel 4. Same size. And it contains the same as 4, except we are more close-up. We now only see the astronaut’s helmet from top of the helmet down to his lower jaw. We only see the top of the claw hand and part of the bottom, as we are close-up on the cheeseburger. The astronaut looks angry, and there are two sweat beads leaving his brow and his forehead is wrinkled, mouth open, teeth showing. He says: “How am I going to BREATHE?!” Above the arm: “Hey pal, one thing at a time…” Dialogue takes up the entire top of the panel like in panel 4. Background same as above.
And with no other direction, this is what they came up with.
Aren’t they amazing!?
One thing the assignment doesn’t naturally take into account is style. Each of these young artists has their own style, and while the the art is close to the original, they all have their own signature.
I use this activity in multiple classes, and each time, it works wonders and has sparked great conversation. I’ll usually have each student find a 3-4 panel comic strip, script it, and share it with another student. Then we all (yes, I do this with them) take a weekend to draw, and we come back, look at the originals, and talk about what we did well, where we went wrong, and most importantly, how the communication was key in making the good parts happen.
In any profession, good communication is key. This activity teaches that. But it doesn’t have to be comics and drawing. Do it with objects and photographs. I encourage you to take the bones here and shape them into something you can use. If you want to do it like this, and you are worried about the art, use a simple comic. There are thousands out there!
I want to thank students Ola, Elliot, and Taylor for their hard work to help pull this off and demonstrate this amazing activity! I want to thank Steenz for the idea, and Dan Dougherty for letting us use his fantastic artwork. And I want to thank Shveta for asking me to help out with the book; please look for it later this year for more comics in the classroom help!
I promise not to wait as long ever again to bring you content you can use! And, hey…I started a YouTube channel over quarantine. See URL below. Go give me a subscribe. That would be cool of you.
Email me if you have any question about this assignment or comics in the classroom in general.
Interesting that, even though the layout is largely defined in the script, no one seems to have accentuated the sense of perspective by making other than strictly rectangular panels.
It is great seeing how same and different the interpretations are.
In essence, this is how I ‘audition’ artists for my books. I partially look for adherence to the script, but also look out for style and unexpected displays of cleverness in the interpretation.