Comics in the classroom: the artists’ perspective

As a writer with the shaky draftsmanship of a toddler on Red Bull, I tend to avoid discussing the visual aspect of comic book literature – this despite holding a Ph.D. which looked at the lives of many 20th century art historians!

I really struggled with art in high school. The only recognition a teacher ever showed for my artistic talents was at the age of 13, when I decorated the interior and exterior covers of my maths book with an epic stick-figure comic depicting the escapades of Jimmy Joe the Spew Surfer as he battled his way to a Ramones gig.

At the bottom of that week’s homework, Mr. O’Grady wrote: ‘7/10, some corrections to be made. Please kindly cover over the adventures of Jimmy Joe et al, or purchase a new exercise book.’ He then made me collect litter from the campus after school.

Jessica Abel, self-portrait
Self-portrait from 2007’s Life Sucks, by Jessica Abel

In this blog post, I want to redress the balance and hear artist-educators’ thoughts on using comics in the classroom. From the USA, we’re joined by acclaimed graphic novelist Jessica Abel, co-creator of the Drawing Words, Writing Pictures comics textbook. In London, Kel Winser works with children and young people creating Egyptian-themed superhero comics at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian archaeology, while Australian writer and illustrator Steve Axelsen runs workshops for young people in Western Sydney via the Westwords programme.

All three artists began by pointing out that, even if your artistic skills are no better than mine, it’s okay to start off inspiring your students through doodles and simple experimentation.

Jessica: Comics are very hard to master. It’s one of the more complex and demanding art forms. And that may be a disincentive to trying.

Kel: So few people, whether child or adult, have the confidence to draw. Instead, they fear they will make mistakes or not get it right. A lot of what I try to do is get people to think in a different way. That’s part of the battle.

Steve: I’ve come late to the art of cartooning. I had almost no exposure to comics as a kid, having grown up in a dour and tidy family where enjoyment and pleasure were somewhat discouraged.

This might explain my arrested development career choice. My art training was all surreptitious – doodling in margins on folder dividers, mostly cartoons and caricatures.

Petrie Museum exterior by Kel Winser.
Petrie Museum exterior by Kel Winser.

Like Steve O’Malley, the New Zealand comic book artist who featured on this site last year, Kel trained in fine art and found that teachers looked down on his fondness for comic books.

Kel: I went through my high school art education with teachers generally being unsupportive of my desire to pursue comics creation. By ignoring comics and conforming, I naively thought I was doing what I should in order to meet to the world’s expectation of what being an artist means.

I spent a couple of years between the ages of 18 and 20 trying to ‘find myself’ and it was at that point I picked up a comic again and found the nerdy collector inside of me, who had been missing since high school ended.

I went to conventions with home-made comics and was told by several artists that my life drawing needed work, so I found a course in illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. There I was able to nurture my ambitions. I had my confidence back and I’ve been creating art ever since.

Within a nurturing, creative learning environment, it’s still important to encourage the development of students’ technical skills.

Steve Axelsen runs a comic book workshop in Western Sydney
Steve and students at a Sydney comics workshop

Steve: Coming up with stories never seems to be a problem for the kids, but drawing is not taught anymore, and it shows. Longer workshops might include access to cut and paste images – but I don’t really believe in this – drawing by hand is such a wonderful skill to push along.

Some exercises I suggest:

  • Support drawing through loosening up exercises – such as copying caricatured expressions, as loosely as possible.
  • Roughing – emphasising the importance of the organisation of frames – position on page, avoiding the lopping of images due to lack of space, flow between successive images.
  • I stress the importance of keeping the roughs loose and changeable. It’s common for clients to tighten up out of nerves.
  • ‘Finished art’ – a better quality paper is distributed and the roughs are  re-rendered more carefully and, if time allows, colour added.

Jessica: There are a number of low-drawing (even no-drawing) exercises in the first few chapters of Drawing Words, Writing Pictures, and on the DW-WP website, that can be very inspiring.

All three of my guests are optimistic about the future of comics in the classroom, as teachers recognise the opportunities to use visual narratives across the curriculum.

Steve: Educators need to accept that comics, graphic novels, sequential art and bandes dessinées can present a legitimate educational opportunity, that they are more than idle entertainment, and they are a form of  ‘literature’ that can convey complex ideas, emotions and themes as well – or as poorly! – as books containing lots of words.

Kel: As a student, illustration made me more confident about my own visual communication skills than any other form of art – both in the ideas it generates and stories it tells to the variation of skills in each artist.

This is a great lesson that can also be applied to art teaching: the more open-minded you can be to a child’s abilities and ambitions the better, especially when teaching the creative arts. As I embarked on a career in teaching I told myself that I would always be open-minded to what a child wants to explore, supporting and guiding that where I can.

Jessica: The benefits of using comics in the classroom are many, but all have to do with mastering a complex and challenging art form. Students will develop their graphic abilities in many ways, not just the obvious figure drawing and perspective, but also design of visual information, using images to convey concrete information, and other abilities that are easily transferrable to other art forms and approaches to design. Students also learn to build and understand visual and verbal narrative on many levels, and with many approaches.

I would recommend that teachers implement comics reading in their curricula, and not shy away from discussing how the images work to tell the story. Comics often get read simply for content, and that’s a mistake I think. It’s really valuable and interesting to delve into the visual narrative.

For more on Kel Winser’s work in London, visit Kel’s website.

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden run the Drawing Words, Writing Pictures site with many excellent resources.

Find out more about Steve Axelsen at his website.

For more on comics and education, check out the comicsedu tag on my website.

2 thoughts on “Comics in the classroom: the artists’ perspective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s