comics jams at the cartoon museum!

During the first of two 2-hour workshops I led at the Cartoon Museum on Thursday, we started with warm-up sketches. Here’s mine, some sort of burping rodent.

The first session was very chilled out, only three kids, and we had a wonderfully companionable time drawing together. They were old enough so I could just keep setting them tasks, then letting them get on with it, which let me take part in the drawing, too. For the warm-up sketches, we started with putting some random eyeballs on a page, drawing a simple shape around the eyeballs, then turning it into a character.

The second workshop had loads more people show up, including two mums who happily mucked in. The day’s theme was Comic Jam, so first we designed characters (the way that Emma Vieceli taught us all last year at the Crystal Palace Children’s Book Festival), making a list of professions, then a list of animals/objects, and combining the two (hairdresser cat, assassin chicken, chef toilet, etc).

Then I showed them the Airship comics jam I did with my friend David O’Connell (you can read it here on my website) and then they set their own characters off on a four-person comics jam (passing to the left, like with cards). Then we designed mini comics so they could make their own story, inspired by things that had popped up in their comics jam if they wanted.

Comics Jam, here’s how we did it:
* Design a character on a piece of scratch paper.
* Fold an A3 piece of paper in half twice. Open up, there will be four square, or panels.
* Decide if you want to turn your page so that your comic is portrait or landscape format (either will work)
* Start with the top left-hand panel.
* Start off a story using your character. The scene can be fairly ordinary, but bring in a hint that something unusual will happen in the next panel.
* After five minutes, everyone holds their papers up in the air.
* Pass your paper to the person on your left (or swap, if there’s only two of you).
* Read the first panel, then decide what happens next in the story and draw it in the second panel (top right).
* After five minutes, swap again. By this third panel, the story should be in full swing, possibly with its most dramatic scene.
* After five minutes, swap again. This fourth panel will finish the story; so think about a way to bring the story to a conclusion, whether it’s with something funny, a tragic end, or have the character making an observation about what’s happened to it that best fits that character’s personality.
* Pass the story back to the person who drew the first panel, find yours, and find out what kind of adventure your character’s gone on while you’ve been away.

Using a Comics Jam in a workshop, some great things:

* It forces the kids to to concentrate on storytelling clarity. It doesn’t matter how great the picture is or how passionate the writing is if the next person can’t understand what’s going on or read their writing. So the creators have to keep stepping back and trying to look at their single panel from another person’s perspective, and understand that just because it makes sense in their head, they have to put in extra work and attention for it to make sense to someone else. (Which contrasts to the warm-up drawings, where the main point is to brainstorm anything and everything on paper and not worry if it makes sense.)

* It emphasises the importance of continuity. They’re taking someone else’s character, props and setting and using its elements to make the next part of the story happen. So they have to pay attention to details and decide what’s important to carry over from one scene to the next.

* Sometimes it make them think about drawing a comic in a new way. Some kids drew a single image from a flat side view, some would draw an assortment of tiny little panels, some would use narration, some speech bubbles, some would zoom in on the character face or body parts, others would show whole bodies head-to-foot and fairly small on the page. But as the kids looked at each other’s work, it would start to click that there are different ways of laying out a story.

* It pushes them in plot directions they might never had imagined, showing them that there’s more than one way for a story to go. (This was a big help to me in getting me to relax in storytelling when one story direction wasn’t working.) Generally the comics jam plot lines aren’t very sophisticated, but they can then cherry-pick the ideas they like and then give their single-author stories more cohesive plot lines. This also helps with kids who are too precious with their work, learning to let it go and have fun with it. If kids are too young, they often throw an angry fuss about giving up their drawings, so be careful about doing this with kids younger than, say, 8 years old.

* The time limit forces kids who might linger the whole session over the details of a single panel to pare it down to its storytelling essentials and draw them fairly quickly. Whereas for kids who draw a panel in a few seconds flat, it gives them reflection time to see if they could add any details to make the panel look more interesting and to double-check with me that it’s ledgible.

* Comics literacy: it introduces kids to the idea of reading left to right and top to bottom. This is particularly important for kids who aren’t used to reading comics, it’s not neccesarily intuitive. With the paper folds, the comic has a pre-existing simple panel structure, so kids can focus on remembering left and right instead of having to worry about making their panels the right size or shape. And because they’re focusing on a single panel, it gives me time to come around and check that their speech bubbles also read left to right and top to bottom, so a reader can know in which order the characters are speaking (also a learned, not an intuitive skill).

* A single panel is bite-sized, a kid won’t get overwhelmed with having to come up with a whole story at once, they just need to concentrate on a single scene. (This is more of a problem with adults, I find, usually kids are good at diving straight into a story.) It’s helpful for the kids who just sit there and say they don’t know what to draw. We started with a theme for our first session in the day, What happened this morning. So they drew their character doing something very ordinary, such as brushing their teeth, eating breakfast or putting on their shoes… but with a hint of something to come (tentacles from the toothbrush, eyeballs in the jam, the wrong shoes, etc).

* Kids learn how to create small cliffhangers in their panel, giving the next person something to play with when they pick up the story. Perhaps it’s someone brushing their teeth, but you can see some tiny tentacles coming out of their mouth. Obviously something is going to happen in the next scene. This is easier to explain to older kids (10+, say), but sometimes the younger ones get it. This is an excellent skill for making longer comics or writing without pictures, coming up with twists that make people want to turn the page or go straight into reading the next chapter.

* Story structure: even though the storyline is playfully freeform, it still makes kids think about a story’s start, its climax and resolution. One beginning panel, two middle panels, one ending panel.

And I suspect there are other things, I just haven’t thought of them yet! Comics jams rock. 🙂

Trouble Shooting

* Don’t let the jam come to a grinding halt if you get one kid in the group who’s a bit younger or makes panels that are almost completely undecipherable. If the group’s too big and you don’t have time to talk with them about it and help them write narrative bits on it, turn that into a game as well for the next person: they have to look at this mystery panel, decide for themselves what has happened in it and use the next panel to take forward what they think might have happened. It’s a bit like Anthony Browne’s Shape Game, turning a scribble into a picture, except you’re turning a scribble into a piece of story.

* It’s easier for a kid who’s super-protective of his or her story to deal with the idea of giving it up to someone else if you can assure them they’ll be able to write their own story in the next activity.

* If a kid across the table starts telling another kid what to do for his or her story, gently remind the bossy one that this is the whole point of the comics jam, that it’s a surprise for everyone else to see what that person has put into their panel. But if the kid’s stuck, you can talk him or her through the earlier panel and brainstorm with the kid possible things that might happen and then let he or she decide on an option.

* If nearly the whole time has gone by and the kid’s still sitting there with a blank panel, say that it’s possible just to have a speech bubble in a panel and hopefully they’ll be able to draw/write that very quickly. Keeping it simple, if the kid insists on a background, they can just zoom in on a character’s eye or hand or face; they don’t have to draw the character’s whole body. Or they can have the speech bubble tail pointing off the page, so the character is speaking off-screen. If the character is shouting, the letters and jagged speech bubble outline might fill up the whole panel.

The kid who finished this one didn’t have a terribly strong story to go with, but I totally loved the tragically resigned face of the final panel’s duck:

Keep an eye on the ‘Learning and Events’ section of the Cartoon Museum’s website for lots of other workshops.

During the second session, I was excited to see a familiar face in the crowd, Emma, who came with her sketchbook to last year’s Caption festival in Oxford. She lives with her architect parents in Paris so I mostly only see her drawings when her parents post them on Twitter, but she draws beautifully.

Here’s a great story in her sketchbook about a little devil who gets thrown out of his home for being too well-behaved.

The little devil has to take lots of exams after passing through the Pearly Gates. First Jesus gives him a book to read, but there are no words on the page until Jesus makes them miraculously appear. Then God asks him questions, but he can’t hear anything he’s saying. Then Mary gives him a numeracy exam, which mercifully is manageable and he passes the test.

Mary then gives him his angel robes and he’s a happy little guy. And there’s another comic on the right-hand page.

Isn’t that fabulous? Some of the storyline needed Emma’s explanations and I asked her if she’d considered adding narration or dialogue to explain certain things about the story. She’d been wrestling with that because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to write in French or English. (She says she’s more literate in French but she really likes using English.) Hehe, I wish I had that problem.

In the first workshop, we came up with two characters from simple shapes and contrasting them by giving them very different personalities. I was meeting Hayley Campbell for lunch (she works just around the corner at Gosh! Comics), so I drew Hayley and me while the kids were working on theirs. (Hayley has a rather explosive personality, which you might have seen if you follow her on Twitter.)

After warm-up sketches, character design, a comics jam, and talking about book design, we only had about fifteen minutes to make our mini comics. To keep things simple, I suggested showing one character doing something ordinary on one page while having the other character do the same thing on the facing page, but doing it in a different, much more remarkable way. So back to my Hayley character. The kids came up with the ending for me, and really wanted to know if I was actually going to give it to her at lunchtime. (Which I did. These are Hayley’s iPhone photos from Twitter.)

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