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From rockets to rainbows.

Rockets and rainbows are familiar images which find their way into children's drawings and narratives. This past year, I taught comic bookmaking classes to children in Indiana University's Saturday Art Class program. This experience gave me the unique opportunity to see these familiar images become integrated with students' personal texts. The students' satisfaction in the creation of these personal narratives confirmed for me that comic bookmaking has an important place in a visual arts curriculum.

A Mirror to Society

The enthusiasm for comics by children has not always been shared by teachers and parents. Education literature of the 1940s presents views of comics as fascist, vicious and as contributing to juvenile delinquency. A classic study in support of the idea that comic books contribute to juvenile delinquency is cited in Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954). A similar contemporary view is expressed in Closing of the American Mind (1989) which criticizes popular culture as causing a "spiritual paralysis among today's youth. If you consider comic books as a form of popular culture as I do, these views have a negative association for teaching popular culture in a curriculum.

Despite these criticisms, comics and comic books are a significant part of American culture. From its birth at the turn of the century, comics have held up a mirror to society. The greatest comic strips are replete with both significant issues and historical movements--from civil rights to feminism. In short, a reading of American comics is a reading of twentieth-century social history. Until recently, it has been sadly overlooked for its artistic merits as a visual art form.

High Interest

Why teach a comic bookmaking project in a visual arts curriculum? Comics successfully capture the imagination of elementary students. As far back as 1909, a German researcher recognized that the picture-story, or visual narrative, was an important art form for children. Studies and observations show that children enjoy looking at and making comics. A 1941 study of children's interest in comic books revealed that both girls and boys like to make original comics; a tendency was clearly shown in fourth through sixth graders.

Bookmaking is also a project that elementary students view with enthusiasm. A novel and challenging project, comic bookmaking allows students to create a portable work of art that sets the stage for looking and talking about narrative-art painting traditions.

The Visual Narrative

No other narrative art form could be more familiar, accessible, or such an integral part of our American culture than comics. An estimated one-hundred million Americans enjoy the comics in daily newspapers, and more than two-hundred million comic books are published every year. Today, there are over 300 comic-book publishers, and 10,000 comic-book titles to choose from.

Studying comics as a contemporary narrative art form can develop art skills and a sense of humor. They can help children to generate their own narratives, utilizing themes of universal appeal. From the beginning, comics have concentrated on adventure and fantasy, thus lending themselves to a storytelling approach. Comics as modern-day narrative have a long tradition in art history stretching back to the merging of image and text in Egyptian hieroglyphics and illuminated manuscripts. The comic influence in modern art can be seen in the work of Chicago artists Karl Wirsum and Jim Nutt, who produced comic-book catalogs full of puns, satire and misspellings to accompany their painting exhibitions in the 1960s. Painters Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and graffiti artists transformed narrative painting by incorporating cartoon and television comic images in their works. Some noted twentieth-century painters have also been cartoonists. Franz Kline produced comics as a student; Lionel Feininger produced short-lived strips for the Chicago Tribune; and Philip Guston produced comics for the Los Angeles Times in the 1930s.

Expressing the Humorous

Comics in the visual arts curriculum can help students develop their ability to create humorous situations and satirical drawings and text. Humor development parallels social, emotional and cognitive development which means elementary school students in grades three through seven arc prime candidates for creating comic books. Children's cartoons reveal that the way students express humor is as individual as their drawing styles.

Developing Social Awareness

Comic bookmaking is an excellent medium for children to express their concerns about social and political events and issues. Political cartoons can provide debate opportunities, and sensitize students to existing political and social issues. The stereotyping of ethnic groups in twentieth-century comics can provide opportunities for discussion about oppression and inequities. Students can also learn a great deal about the global portrayal of women through cross-cultural comparisons of images of women in comics. For example, Lynda Barry's comics explore race relations from a working-class perspective, and Sylvia by Nicole Hollander tackles issues of politics and equality. Cathy Guisewite's Cathy expresses the preoccupations of a contemporary career woman, focusing on relationships and self-perception. All of these images can be departures for class discussion, and the creation of student books expressing similar issues and themes.

Let's Not Forget...

We've discussed comics as an important learning tool in developing a sense of humor, and in expressing social and political ideas, but what about art? Yes, it's true that comic bookmaking provides students with opportunities to develop visual art skills. In the comic-bookmaking process, students consider and utilize concepts of design and layout, drawing, figure drawing, shading, patterning, color and perspective and making aesthetic, formal and technical decisions. They incorporate techniques of professional comic-book artists--cross hatching, shifting viewpoints, movement and action, using inventive lettering and frames. They even learn about facing deadlines.

Although copying is often considered detrimental to creative development, young artists' drawing abilities become finely honed through copying comic-book figures. Cartoonists also agree: Lynda Barry says that she copied everything, and that's how she learned to draw. Art Speigelman notes that he was interested in satire, and mostly copied from Mad or Cracked.

The Lesson

In my comic-bookmaking classes at Indiana University, my students ranged in age from seven to twelve, and classes were for eight weeks for two hours every Saturday morning. I provided the students with 9 x 12" (23 x 30 cm) white paper, standard and colored pencils, thin black markers, rulers, triangles and erasers. I asked them to: (1) generate a page of imaginary characters--a number of faces with different emotions; (2) select two or three of these characters and generate a full page of action studies; (3) create a story line in one paragraph using these characters; (4) do a twelve-page layout in pencil; (5) create a cover design and advertisements; and, (6) integrate the story line with the images.

Comic-book themes ranged from warfare to relationships--all had a conflict and a resolution. The format allowed students to grapple with social and personal issues, offering a release of emotions. The issues ranged in complexity and insight, but always contained elements of visual and/or conceptual humor.

Finished comic books were read by classmates who provided suggestions and criticisms. The class discussed the narratives in terms of plot, setting, dialogue and their expressive, aesthetic and technical properties. Comic books were then displayed in a rack at our final student exhibition, and students, friends and parents enjoyed coming up to the rack to read the books.

The concept that required the most emphasis was sequencing and remaining true to the plot. Craft-personship was also emphasized. Throughout the class sessions we looked at many different comic books and graphic novels which the students and I brought in to compare and contrast for images, styles, plots and techniques.

New Innovations

Computer graphics programs on the market for the Amiga and Macintosh help make the medium of comic bookmaking accessible in the classroom. Comic Strip Factory for the Macintosh consists of pre-drawn characters, fonts, backgrounds, balloons and clip-art files. Comic Setter for the Amiga has similar features to the Mac program, and additional features for character development of science fiction and super heroes. Both can assist students in overcoming the initial technical problems of how to set up a format, while providing the freedom to innovate and express themselves humorously and imaginatively.

Wrapping Things Up

Comic books are effective tools for the development of drawing skills because of their action-filled themes, movement, use of figures and emotional expression. The comic-book format sets the stage for developing humor and imagination, social awareness and expanding students' knowledge of narrative art. The comic book is a concise and portable container for student imagination, humor and personal drama.

I believe comic books will continue to play an important role in our culture because of their mass appeal to children and adults, their diversity and complexity, their humor and their world-wide circulation. From rockets to rainbows, comic-book images and narratives can hold up a mirror to our society and our children's lives--to be read and re-read for new meanings.

Sheri Klein is a doctoral student and Associate Instructor in Art Education at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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Title Annotation:teaching comic book-making to children
Author:Klein, Sheri
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1993
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