On Teaching Kids Comics

This article first appeared in The Comics Journal #170, August 1994. The Comics Journal is published by Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle WA 98115.

Between 1991 and 1993 I had the opportunity to teach a half-dozen workshops to gradeschool and adolescent students in the art of drawing Comics. After-school courses for one hour a week for eight weeks, or every-morning week-long Summer intensives, these classes were part of the visual arts program ArtKids at the Community School of Music and Art in Mountain View, CA.
Comics are starting to be taken seriously as a communications skill, comparable to journalism or film studies, with a distinguished history and body of conventions to be taught and expanded. With these conventions and long-established syntax combining picture and text, a cinematic range of content can be economically expressed. This was what I was trying to convey to the kids, as well as a curiosity about Comics history--an understanding that the medium did not begin with Rob Liefield, hologram covers and X-Men. Kids need to be encouraged to participate in this medium as creators, not just uncritical consumers; like all real teaching it is thus slightly subversive by advancing their empowerment. Perhaps to understand manipulation of any kind of media is some insurance against being manipulated by them.
It's easy to have a lot of beefs with the Art World, and way that art is taught in this country. I teach computer graphics at a nearby junior college, and publication has always seemed paramount; in our time we learn the most from mass communications, not communing in hushed spaces with masterpieces. The Comics class was one of the few offered in ArtKids to move beyond the unspoken assumptions of Gallery Art, the art object framed and hung on private walls (in kids' cases, magnet'd by Mom to the refrigerator).
In the Comics class kids got their chance to tell their own tales, with words and pictures in a medium in which they already felt comfortable and already competent.

Though some first graders participated successfully in the class, most of the enrollment seemed to be older Elementary school pupils, grades 3 through 6. The majority of the classes were male nine- and ten-year-olds. One female faculty member sniffed "Oh, Comics--It's a boy thing", though some of the best work was done by agressive girls.
Comics Classes advertised for Teenagers tended to get mostly seventh- and eighth graders. Because of small enrollment one term saw the older and younger classes combined. It was originally intended the teenagers have a class of their own because they'd want to work with more adult and existential themes (my friends and I did in highschool). These kids didn't, and their presence let them assume leadership roles. A shy thirteen-year old girl who drew a fat boy character and a smart, fast-drawing fourteen-year old boy joined the younger students and set good examples of work and dignity. In a Summer workshop, a tenth-grader was most interested in satire, another in detailed renderings of muscular Tarzans, plant tendrils--but not the picaresque tales I expected they'd draw.

The first class session emphasized how Comics are essentially about storytelling with artwork and words, and that there are techniques that have built up over the years for doing that. We talked about multiple panels and how they sequence the action or tale. We examined lettering of talk and thought balloons, and then various types of display lettering for titles (capitals, block, three-dimensional illusions and dropshadows; burning, melting, metallic etc.).
The first class finished up with some of the novelty comic conventions (i.e. lines indicating speed, worry-sweat, the smoke of exasperation, swearing symbols). Some kid inevitably asked if I mean "Conventions" like the ones where people meet to buy and sell comics.
The second class was about giving drawings form, balancing values on a page. The uses and abuses of outlining. Dark against light defining forms and surfaces. How cast shadows, side shadows, the shadow edge and highlights model forms, setting a figure forward. The drawing of various kinds of materials--wood, glass, brick, rocks and grass, water or blood, smoke or steam--is demonstrated.
Often a theme could be amplified with the use of videos in the class, a good change of pace to wrap up the last ten or fifteen minutes. A nearby drugstore sold videos of classic 1930s cartoons for $2 each, good to demonstrate adventure, cartoon figurative anatomy, or animal characters.
By the third class we discussed techniques for drawing (and exaggerating) drawing people. Porportion the human face and figure, and the anatomy of the hand. Kids need clues for convincingly drawing both sexes, such as avoiding absurd breasts on the female torso. An old Betty Boop cartoon served as an example of cartoon figures that are exaggerated yet coherent, consistent and believable.
The next few classes were about developing their own human and animal characters, and how they can be given personalities. We examined superheroes and adventure, the creation of characters with enhanced powers & identity, and watched some classic Popeye. We also tossed around ideas how autobiography could enter here, but no kid really wanted to draw upon his own life, even with its possibilities enhanced by superpowers. One rule in the class was that if you drew an established character (like Batman or Predator), you had to make it yours by putting him in your school or a local setting. We talked about monsters and tried to examine and chart them critically. Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Mummy, King Kong and Godzilla, etc.--which had animal-like powers? Which were re-animated dead? We figured out ways these formulae could be adapted to our own creations. A videotape of a shlocky 1970s Godzilla and the Japanese "Yog from Outer Space" (extraterrestial power creates a giant octopus and turtle) were useful reference in this discussion. I'd suggest the kids create monsters that related to their daily lives, and we saw some comics produced featuring monstrous authority-figures and menacing Science Teachers. We pondered and drew aliens from hot, cold, high- and low-gravity planets, as well as robots and future humans. In discussing themes of Space & Electronics I tried to emphasize to these well-off Silicon Valley kids how nearly all their parents were involved in high-tech and computer industry so--of all kids--they should think about the future. This prompted the precocious son of two Hewlett-Packard programmers to lead a discussion of Virtual Reality. And as some of the kids had used camcorders, we discussed comics as video storyboards and their shots.
From the first day of class the kids kept all their work in portfolios, and were expected not to crumple and discard even drawings with which they were dissatisfied. This let me to choose even unfinished work or even single figures or sketches to include in the class comic book at the end of the term. It also allowed them to see progress if they applied themselves to echniques they were taught. Since the final product of the class was a photocopied publication, they only worked in black and white media, including ebony pencils, black felt tip pens and china markers on white (or donated nearly-white) paper.
There seemed to often be resistance to storytelling in multiple panels, these kids most comfortable drawing a single figure on a page. Kids also had problems systematically lettering in steps to get legible word balloons, rather than drawing the balloon and jamming words into it haphazardly. They also didn't readily understand the concept of sketching lightly and tentatively when pencilling a layout or developing a figure.
I found it helpful in both teaching to generate a lot of big, quick artwork on the blackboard or with china marker on big sheets of paper to illustrate each point I brought up. This also established some credibility ("Is that your best drawing, or your worst?") with the kids. Most of the lessons in drawing technique were applied to their suggestions or questions like "How do you draw a guy's nose exploding?" I suspect a lot of other art teachers only responded "Draw this still life instead!", but here they unexpectedly got real answers to their curiostity.
Sometimes a kid would ask "What should I draw" for an answer off the top of my head. The ugliest car in the world. A guy in hardware store with an atomic hammer. A comic using your favorite song lyrics. One ice-breaking technique, when the class seemed in a rut and only drawing what it already came in knowing, proved to be the Comics Jam. The Jam was used by the cartoonists in ZAP and the undergrounds in the late '60s and early '70s but supposedly dated back well before that (MAD and the EC Comics bullpen in the '50s). We sped it up, so each kid drew only a single panel in two or three minutes, which forced them to draw quickly then pass the paper to the next. The kids didn't like it at first, egos angrily resisting that it was no longer solely an individual's work, but soon got the idea, picked up the rhythm and bought into the game. We got some witty eight-panel results, when each added to the narrative some unexpected turns. Sometimes the drawing was highly abstract. Other times a kid essentially redrew the panel before his, let the story linger there or used the same image with different explanatory text or balloons.

Every class produced a comic that included at least one contribution from each student. The evening that followed the second-to-last class the kids' work was photocopied, reduced and pasted-up as the masters to the comic that was then published in quantity and distributed to the class. Their first publication and the boost in self-esteem that comes from it were thus fitted into the continuing grand old tradition of ad-hoc copy machine comics and 'zines! The first issue was assembled on an 11' x 17' page like a Sunday funnies supplement, and printed double sided. Later issues were printed in 8- or 12-page book form, either on 11" x 17" sheets folded into letter-sized and stapled, or 7" x 8 /12" from a folded legal-sized sheet. Some of the best strips drawn in pencil, great silly stories with shaggy line work, simply didn't reduce well on the copy machine. In such cases we had to publish the kid's lesser work, though any of it could be mounted on the wall during the semesterly ArtKids exhibition, where we also distributed the Class comic to visitors and parents.
At one point I put big paper on the wall for a group comic mural. I was surprised how this change of scale made them doubt their own imaginative abilities. The girl who a couple weeks before created original characters like eco-hero "Tree Protector" ran to her knapsack for source material to copy. Somebody else got up and drew Sonic the Hedgehog from the SEGA game, but at least could be talked into having him battle with another kid's drawing of Punisher. Finally a thirteen-year-old got the idea and drew several original figures tumbling over each other in a fight. Experience in community mural projects in San Francisco in the early 1980s should have taught me that you can't expect collaborative work to happpen immediately, that it takes a lot of front-end thought and discussion for any kind of shared vision.
Spring, 1992 all classes in the ArtKids program were called upon to do work on a "Protect the Earth" theme to accompany a musical performance at Mountain View's Performing Arts Center. In its wisdom the school administration had scheduled installing the show for the third week of class, which meant the class had only met twice, a total of two hours. I explained to the Comics bunch what we were going to accomplish, for comics to be wrapped around two central columns flanking the entrance in the Lobby. The kids did all their drawing on 8" square panels, which were then assembled into strips wrapping around the columns. Inspired by Trajan's Column in Rome (which appeared in The Penguin Book of Comics as an antecedent to the graphic story), it was a quick solution to putting private-scale work into an architectural space. Unfinished work spliced together into new narratives.
The following Summer two computer scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Rebecca Mercuri and Ranjit Bhatnagar, asked for help with imagery on a prototype of a multimedia art installation that would allow kids to confront their fears. On the final evening of the Teenage Comics class, after the class comic book had been published and distributed, I asked the students to draw their fears (dangling the incentive of being in a computerized museum exhibit). They produced plenty of illustrations, from "My Family Dead", ghosts, claustrophobia and bicycle accidents, to being tied down in the desert sun (an Israeli's contribution). The artwork was then digitally scanned, manipulated into red-green 3D images and augmented by illusory "holophonic" 3D sounds by Mercuri and Bhatnagar, and became an interactive display called "Fears" that ran at the Franklin Intstitute Science Museum in Philadelphia in 1992 and later at the MONTAGE '93 Computer Art conference in Rochester, New York.

Curious about school teaching when burned out on the stress of a corporate job, the ArtKids Comics class gave me a priveleged, relatively easy way to teach them without having to put up with the daily grind of a public school setting. These were upper-middle class kids, mostly the spawn of professionals in the region's high-tech industry. Mostly they were white or Asian, only occasionally Black or Latino. Several students were from Israel, each enrolled in several music and art classes at the school. One Black kid, alert and motormouthed, drew some nice characters with flattop "fade" haircuts. Real life intruded into our Comics Valhalla when I had to take one white kid aside and tell him how his racist comments were inappropriate directed towards the Black kid the day after L.A. riots. A ceramics teacher came in one afternoon and exclaimed "Your class is always so quiet!", not realizing that these kids were drawing explosions and battles going BLAM! POW! BU-DDAA- DD-DOWWW! KABLOOEY! A class rule was that you could be as crazy or angry or antisocial as you wanted in here--but only on paper. Sometimes the kids wanted to roughhouse a little bit (usually when the Director of the School was walking by), or goldbrick and get through an hour without drawing, but mostly they all buckled down. They seemed to want validation through visibly improving their skills.
Not all the kids took the opportunity to let wild creativity blossom. Though kids were permitted to look at comics for reference and ideas--as long as they drew and didn't spend most of the class reading--the biggest distraction happened when kids brought in collectors' cards or bagged and hooplah'd collectors'-edition comics. Kids drifted off to look at the work of professionals and abandoned their own efforts. One worried boy, constantly teased by the other kids, soon got nicknamed "Duck Tales" for that was all he would draw. Each class, no matter what the day's lesson, he would only draw Scrooge, Donald and his nephews, copied from Disney books that he'd bring with him. Despite my encouragement, prodding and peer group pressure at his table, Duck Tales would not veer from the models he set out to emulate. Similarly, he didn't want to learn how to construct the ducks' bodies like a professional animator--when I'd start to demonstrate, he'd turn back to his comic books with a pained expression...though he ultimately learned less about them that summer than if he'd listened a bit.
Spring semester's student show I was introduced to a boy I'll callAlvin. I was told he very much wanted to sign up for Comics that Summer, but was warned by other faculty that he'd often acted out in their classes, even feigning an epileptic attack when he felt he wasn't getting enough attention. That afternoon I also met his 300-lb. mother and similarly-porportioned aunt, for Alvin was shuttled back and forth between the two to live. They were supposedly a fundamentalist Christian family but I'd say the driving creed was Dysfunction. When I remarked on her son's drawing on exhibit from another class--a selfportrait in the mouth of a devil--the mother bragged "at home I take and throw out any of his artwork that's negative". Though the temperature that summer hit the hundreds, and the class in the un-airconditioned school had grown too large to work individually with each student (artist Mark van Brest Kempen helped out), there were no discipline problems from anybody, much less Alvin. At times he'd furrow his brow with frustration and look like he was about to boil over, but a word or two of encouragement--a little positive acknowlegement that what he drew was permissible and wouldn't be snatched from him--and he'd work productively the rest of the class. As I taught a Video class in that room in the mornings and its equipment was still set up, one afternoon I offered the Comics class the chance to display and talk about their work on tape. Alvin immediately jumped up to volunteer, proudly showing his work tacked up on the board, almost ready to burst with excitement and fighting back the risk of getting tongue-tied on camera. I hope he can use his artwork as an adolescent and adult to work out whatever devils hold him in their mouths or homes.

Though it had burgeoning enrollment in its final summer, the ArtKids Director decided that the Comics class would be dropped from the program. He explained that the work we published always looked hurried and insufficently developed compared to the more traditional classes, and that the imagery tended to be dark, menacing, or morbid. I can't deny these criticisms, but I felt that this class was in part a realm of permission, a place where the kids could get away with these tendencies (as in the adult field of independent comics), and where they could ultimately do it their way. Frederick Froebel, founder of kindergarten movement, wrote that his purpose was the "creation of freedom", and went on to define the greatest wisdom as "when one educates oneself and others in freedom and self-awareness". Comics can be a part of that, a medium where kids can take control and readily see results. Maybe it's not excessive to say that an eight-year-old's drawing of an invented superhero can be something sacred, in touch with the spiritual and reflecting his own uniqueness, definition of power and entrance into a community. Yet often it's no more than a rigid imitation of something the machinery of consensus and their peers say that they're supposed to like.
I felt like I very much wanted to give kids some systematic skills in this medium--the stuff about drawing I wish I'd been shown at that age. Comics by kids are their Pop Art, and at best savvy recombinations and reflections of the world around them. Comics are also a good way to lead kids into discussions of big issues, of examining What is Nature vs. What is Media?. As a path to literacy, the continuum between image and text, comics remain underutilized as teaching tools in this country. Do kids jump into the Comics medium more easily than do adults? To design and teach adult workshops would be one way to find out.

Yet on top of this enjoyable research into teaching, I came to realize something that shook and alarmed me about the world of kids in the 1990s. The mother of a ten-year-old I'll call Thomas, who had signed up for the class three times (the third was cancelled for lack of enrollment) told me that the Comics class was the high point of the week for her son, the only hour of the week he felt in control. Tall, quick and assertive, she said Thomas was tested for learning disabilities because of poor school performance, though was articulate (even cynical--he made the racist insult) and skilled in the Comics class. The art skills I taught became secondary as she lamented that, besides rare snatches of Quality Time with their overworked Silicon Valley fathers, these lads encounter no other male role models in their school and daily life besides the male artists teaching at Community School. The lone male public school employee, the janitor, doesn't speak much English. So the only time these boys actually spoke to--and asked questions of--an adult man outside of the home is when this burly beatnik teaches 'em how to draw fists and Frankenstein. Maybe this was the only time they ever saw a man having fun in his work. Meanwhile the Mass Media's subtle palette of adulthood--Wolverine, Axl Rose, American Gladiators, Homer Simpson or Al Bundy--gives off too few or too many mixed signals for them to try to use as role models. A boy thing indeed...
Admittedly, teaching kids Comics was a rich experience in part for accessing the Blyvian Inner Child in me, a second chance to be a schoolyard smarty barking "Let's Draw!" to the gang. Perhaps all teaching of kids has an element of that. And some of the kids whose eccentricities were acceptable and focused in the Comics class probably did have adjustment problems in less flexible settings. Kids are by nature witty, sharp and Huck Finn-inventive, but beset by the neuroses of a society that really doesn't know what to do with them or nurture them and their creativity in the way they crave. One hour a week of cheerful mentoring via the underappreciated craft of Comics is still a whole lot less than than your sons and daughters deserve.

© Mike Mosher 1994

All artwork above by kids in the Fall 1992 class.

An excerpt from this essay appeared in School Arts magazine, December 1996.

A selection of Mike Mosher's comics from the 1980s were published in the book _Obsesso-Graphia_ (edited by Norman Mallory, Futharc Press, Ventura CA 1994) along with portfolios of artwork by Mallory and Sharon Hardee.

Return to The Three C's.

Return to Opening.