Glen Downey, Comics in Education, www.comicsineducation.com
Teaching comics and graphic novels in the K-12 classroom is one thing. Writing them, however, is quite another. Here are three helpful tips for anyone wanting to write visual narratives for children!
1. Think about what your young audience knows, and what they don't.
I learned this while writing a children's graphic story called The Sun. The book was for students in Grade 1, and in it I needed to explain what the sun is and what we get from it. I didn't think this would be very difficult until I began to recognize what kids know and what they don't.
In the graphic story, a young girl meets the sun and they have a conversation. Early on, she tries to figure out what the sun is made of. Initially, I was going to have the sun explain that it's a big ball of gas!
This might seem reasonable enough until you realize that very small children have no idea what gas is. They get solids and liquids, but gasses are a rather complex concept to grasp, especially when so many are essentially invisible.
The solution was simple, however. I had the sun describe himself as a big ball of fire. Every kid knows what fire is!
2. Be mindful of the physical structure of the words you use.
When you're writing comics and graphic novels for children, you should keep in mind that there's an important component of your stories that will be relatively new for them.
Kids are learning new words all the time, so we can't expect that they'll have our range of vocabulary when they sit down to read a book. They won't.
There's a reason that books for children are leveled, and you should be mindful of the age of your reader and what words he or she will find familiar or unfamiliar. Remember, too, that just because a concept might be simple, the word for it might be complicated, and kids will need simplified language in order to understand what you mean. For a more detailed explanation of how to ensure a graphic story is appropriately leveled, check out this blog post about using readability statistics.
And don't worry, the first time I submitted a story for children, I was told that it was written for students with about six years of postsecondary education!
3. Use the verbal and the visual to reinforce one another.
Comics thinker and guru Scott McCloud has examined at length the ways in which words and illustrations in a graphic novel speak to one another. Sometimes the visual helps to extend meaning and sometimes it serves as a counterpoint, but in writing for young children it often helps to have words and images reinforce one another.
It used to bug me when a book I was writing would have a narrative caption box or a dialogue bubble that would explain to the reader what exactly was happening in the illustration. However, this mutual reinforcement is often necessary when it comes to young readers and one only need think of the close relationship between word and image in picture books for beginning readers to recognize this is the case.
Keeping these three principles clearly in focus can help you when it comes to writing comics and graphic novels for children. It will also help you when you're trying to pitch your great idea to a potential publisher!
If you teach with comics, be on the lookout for great resources like this one!
We are lucky to be educators at a time when sharing valuable resources is so easy. Here is a great blog post from Colleen Graves, entitled "Graphic Novels in the Classroom." It examines approaches to teaching a variety of graphic novels, like Maus, Persepolis, and The Arrival. There are also a host of links that Colleen has shared, so be sure to check those out as well!
The post focuses on a range of different activities, including those that allow students to take old stories and adapt them to a new setting, as in Colleen's idea for using fairy tales to this end:
I love how complex Jack and the Beanstalk became simply by changing the setting and modifying the characters. I’d like to share this with my students and then have them create their own fractured fairytale graphic novels in groups. Each group could have an art director, author(s), artist, and pencil artist. Groups would be given fairytales, settings, and character ideas and then they could work together to create their mash-up masterpiece!
Over the coming months, I'm hoping to gather and identify as many useful resources as this one from Colleen and share them with you. If you're looking on our site for classroom ideas, check out the activities tab or click the image below!
If you're wondering what the next Kickstarter project you should fund is, I've already found it for you. It brings together Sequart founder, Julian Darius, and Kevin Thurman, and puts a Darrick Robertson cover on the front for good measure. Here's the promotional video with a quote from the authors below:
Martian Comics is an ambitious new sci-fi comic that’s the brainchild of Sequart’s Julian Darius and Kevin Thurman. It features a Darick Robertson cover and interior art by Sergio Tarquini. Interior colors are by R.L. Campos, cover colors by Diego Rodriguez, and lettering by Colin Bell.
The project has a modest initial goal, with stretch goals that will simply mean greater rewards for those who support it. It's quite possible that those who donate a mere $3 might have a whole whack of issues to show for it should the project make some of its stretch goals.
I know the Kickstarter landscape can be pretty busy these days, but that's why it's important to identify something worth supporting and then make sure it gets the funding it needs...
...something like Martian Comics!
This is the kind of project Kickstarter was made for!
When you're called upon to help a Kickstarter campaign that's so close to reaching its goal, it's hard to pass it by, especially when it's bound to be a great product for readers.
So, on the final day of its campaign, Noir City #2 needs your help. It's Kickstarter is close to being realized, but with so little time remaining it's not clear if it will manage to achieve its modest goal of $4500. This is where you come in. First, though, check out the pitch from Noir City #2 campaign architect, Cody Walker.
The campaign has some nice bonuses associated with it, but you can't take advantage of them if you don't donate. So go to website, contribute to the project, and help Cody and his team realize their ambition of releasing Noir City #2!
Time is winding down to my workshop presentations at the annual CITE conference being held at Upper Canada College in Toronto. In one of the presentations, I'll be looking at the graphic memoir, specifically focusing on works in which travel plays a role. Here's the workshop description in case you missed it in my previous blog post.
As I've prepared for the workshop I've begun to see that we can learn a great deal not only from the far ranging travel of artists like Guy Delisle and investigative journalists like Joe Sacco but from the kinds of journeys much closer to home, both literal and metaphorical, of writers like Julie Delporte and Sarah Leavitt.
It has also led me to think about what we learn from others when we travel--from those we meet on our journeys, from those who travel with us, and even from those we leave behind. I've previously discussed my great fondness for Etienne Davodeau's The Initiates, a story where Davodeau asks to learn the art of wine-making from vineyard owner, Richard Leroy, with the latter reciprocating by learning about the graphic novel trade. However, in thinking about why I love the story so much, it suddenly struck me that so many of their interactions are punctuated by sharing a bottle of wine. This is the case right from the very start of the graphic novel.
What I realized is that the way in which Leroy and Davodeau celebrate one another's company-- both through the shared reciprocity of learning about each other's professions and their mutual interest in wine--directly calls to mind the relationship between the title character of Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote (1982) and the Communist ex-mayor of El Toboso he nicknames "Sancho." In Greene's novel, the two travel around Spain in the monsignor's car ("Rocinate") while developing their friendship--often over a bottle of wine.
I've always loved this story, not only because it follows a structure that is similar to Cervantes' Don Quixote (whom the monsignor believes is an ancestor despite characters pointing out that his namesake is fictional), but because of the growth in the compassion and understanding shared between the two central characters. As Davodeau and Leroy journey back and forth to where each of them practices their vocation, we see a similar growth in their understanding of one another, and it makes us realize that the "journey" always has something profound to teach us.
A Great List for Teachers
If you're interested in comics, graphic novels, and visual narrative in general, and are equally as interested in their implications for classroom teaching, you should certainly consider following as many of the accounts below as you can. These are folks whose tweets frequently focus on the comics industry, comics in K-12 education, or academic scholarship related to comics.
A great strategy for those new to Twitter--like educators wanting to learn more about individuals and organizations involved in either comics and education or the wider comics industry--is to follow the people that the folks above are following. After all, they must have a pretty good reason to be doing so!
The Graphic Canon is a Godsend for Teachers
Edited by Russ Kick, the three volumes of The Graphic Canon contain a wealth of wonderful curriculum support materials for teachers. Although there may be colleagues of yours who balk at your desire to use visual narrative in the classroom, they'd be hard-pressed to object to the stunning series of graphic poems, stories, and novel excerpts that constitute these three volumes. Your fellow department members only want to teach "The Canon?" That's fine. With The Graphic Canon they can do just that!
I could talk at great length about this series of books, and no doubt in future postings I'll be looking at how to use them in the classroom, but for now your best resource on the series is their WordPress site.
I can tell you that each volume in the series covers a distinct period of time and the literature that goes with it. The first volume's selections range from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. Volume 2 takes readers from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" to the works of the Bronte Sisters and finally to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finally, the third text goes from Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Hemmingway to Infinite Jest.
From my perspective, the series is of most use to high school educators who either want to...
Of course, there is nothing preventing the teacher from constructing an entire unit around these selections. With younger students, however, you might not have enough selections that are geared towards a junior or middle school audience, so that a series like Graphic Poetry from Rubicon/Scholastic would be a better option. Scott Robins @Scout101 also mentioned in a Tweet the Visions in Poetry series from @KidsCanPress.
Filmic language can be useful in terms of understanding and expressing the relative distance between the reader/viewer and a given subject in a graphic story (see Filmic Language, Part 1). However, it can also help us understand our angle of view with regards to the subject, which in itself can have an impact on how we perceive what we are seeing.
A bird's-eye view in a comic allows us to view the contents of a panel from overhead, helping us to do one of a number of different things, including seeing the context of a scene with greater clarity or giving us a clear sense of a character's predicament. When a graphic storyteller shows us a character from a bird's-eye view, they can seem smaller, weaker, or more insignificant than when shown from a different angle. They can look physically smaller and less imposing, and therefore more vulnerable.
In this type of shot in a graphic story, the camera looks up at the subject from below. This can make the subject itself seem much larger, more imposing, or even more physically intimidating, especially as the bug's-eye shot moves closer to the actual subject and the angle gets closer to 90 degrees.
In this shot, a character is typically shown in the immediate foreground of the panel with another character further away. The action of the panel is sometimes literally framed bythe head and shoulders of the character in the foreground, thus giving the shot its name. It is a commonly used shot in the exchange of dialogue since it gives the reader an opportunity to perceive the character (or object, scene, etc.) in the distance from the general point of view of the character in the foreground.
For the POV shot, the viewer takes a small step forward from the over-the-shoulder shot to become, in effect, the character in the foreground. Comics and films from the horror genre use this shot frequently since it can develop great anxiety and anticipation in the reader/viewer. It can allow him or her to walk in the shoes of a killer or potential victim, seeing only what this character sees. Its use, however, is not limited to the horror genre, and a POV shot has wide applications in visual narrative.
Shot / Reverse Shot
This is a common technique in graphic storytelling that has been inherited from classic Hollywood films that sought to de-emphasize transitions from one scene to the next . Often, a shot / reverse shot in a panel sequence involves a medium over-the-shouldershot of two characters in conversation followed by a panel in which the characters' positions are reversed. This allows for a fairly seamless conversation.
Perhaps you were a comics fan when you were a kid and haven't read them in a while. Things have probably changed a bit since then. Or maybe you'd like to use them in the classroom with your students but feel like you don't have a great background in reading them. The following list should help get you started on the road to becoming an expert on the hottest and most exciting genre on the market!
The Mysterious Underground Men (1948), by Osamu Tezuka
A Contract with God (1978), by Will Eisner
Maus (1986), by Art Spiegelman
The Dark Knight Returns (1986), by Frank Miller
Watchmen (1986), by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Finder (1996-present), by Carla Speed McNeil
Transmetropolitan, Volume 1 (1997), by Warren Ellis and Darcik Robertson
Persepolis (2004), by Marjane Satrapi
Building Stories (2012), by Chris Ware
Boxers & Saints (2013), by Gene Luen Yang
When it comes to comics and the broader tradition of visual narrative, it is incumbent upon educators to teach students about the genre and its history. If we talk to students about how poetry developed from an oral tradition, or about the resurgence of the drama during themiddle ages, we must also talk to them about how sequential art has evolved over time. We must treat the genre with the same degree of seriousness with which treat other genres, because not doing so would be to suggest that there is something nobler or far more worthy of our consideration in poetry or in drama than in visual narrative.
That, however, is rubbish.
Great works of literature are great because they merit such distinction--not because they happen to be of one particular genre and not another. We don't look down our nose at War and Peace because it's a novel and not poetry. We don't think less of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" because it's "only a letter."
Visual narrative is a genre worthy of study, both for ourselves and for our students. Comics in Education (www.comicsineducation.com) is dedicated to proving that.
You absolutely rock!
Comics in Education would like to thank the thousands of visitors to its website in only its first week of operation. We wanted to let you know that we have a new page up on the site called "Our Supporters" under the "About" tab. If you are doing great work in the field of comics in education, want to celebrate visual narrative and the impact it has on popular culture, or hope to promote the great work you're doing in the comics industry, please consider sending us a message on Twitter or through our contacts page and we'll put a link to you and your work as a thank you for visiting our site!
If it sounds like free advertising, well...I guess it is!
Comics in Education wants earnestly to promote the use of visual narrative in the K-12 classroom, and for that we need an industry that is dynamic and receptive to the needs of all readers, from those who are young to those who are young at heart. Fortunately, we seem to have just that!
Thanks everyone for all your support!
Comics in Education
Chaney also gets into the whole idea of how we tend to process cartoonish representations of the human form in a different way than we would still photography. Photography suggests an image captured in the a past that no longer exists. We know that something in a photograph is not happening to the person "in the here and now" because the photo had to have been previously taken. However, Satrapi's cartooning shows us a character that we, as readers, are willing to believe is in "the present" of the narrative. This is such an insightful idea and one that can generate really excellent discussions with students.
Chaney's talk and the ideas it raises also allow for a lot of cross-polination depending on the other writers your students are studying. For example, Margaret Atwood's poetry is filled with references to the problematic nature of photography: how photographs capture an instant in time, but don't tell us what happened to the subject in the time before or the time since the click of the camera's shutter. Think, for instance of "This is a Photograph of Me" or "Girl and Horse, 1928." Satrapi also focuses on photographs as a visual record, with a memorable full-page panel of her father taking photos of the violence, and other panels in which a character is looking at a photograph from the past and pointing out something about it.
Chaney's talk, then, is a wonderful starting point for such discussions. Be sure to check it out!
If you've found this site useful and would like to donate to Comics in Education, we'd really appreciate the support!
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.