Visual literacy—the ability to interpret and create visual images—is an important 21st century skill. Kids are exposed to imagery from the internet, video games, television, film, and advertisements every day, and it is important that they are able to think critically about the images they see. One of the best (and most fun) ways for kids to improve their visual literacy is to read and create comics. Here are some tips for getting kids started creating their own comics, and helping them get better as they go along.
You Already Have The Tools!
You don’t need any special supplies to make comics. Any white paper you have on hand will do. Hand drawn comics always start with pencils, so have students get out those pencils and erasers. Encourage them to draw lightly with their pencils so they can erase and make changes easily. Once they are happy with their pencils, have them go over the lines with ink. The pros use ink and brushes, but ballpoint pens or fine-tip markers work well for beginners. Provide crayons or colored pencils if they want to add color.
The simplest sequential comics are just three square panels in a strip. Kids are usually familiar with this format from reading favorites such as Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, or Peanuts.
You can provide a blank strip for students, or have them draw their own (rulers optional). Have students choose a simple story, such as “The kid threw the ball and the dog caught it,” or “The frog hopped off the log and into the water.” Have them draw what happens at the beginning of their story in the first panel, what happens in the middle in the second panel, and the ending in the third panel.
It’s also fun to let students create a “jam comic,” where one person does the first panel, then passes it off to another person to do the second, and so on. You could add rules such as “no words allowed” or “every panel must have an animal in it.” Let your students go for it—they’re bound to come up with fun ideas.
A Note About Drawing
Some students may be intimidated by drawing as they have little experience or feel that they are “not good at drawing.” Let them know that stick figures are great for comics—one of the most popular webcomics in the world is drawn with stick figures! If they don’t want to draw people, they can create characters that are animals, aliens, or even shapes or inanimate objects. Challenge them to add more details as they grow more comfortable drawing, adding clothing, backgrounds, and props using simple shapes and lines. I highly recommend the Adventures in Cartooning [http://us.macmillan.com/series/adventuresincartooning] series of books—they will show students that they already have the skills to make their own comics!
There are also lots of free digital tools available online that allow kids to build comics without drawing. I used Make Belief Comix to create the panels for this article! You can also try the Toon Books Cartoon Makers [http://www.toon-books.com/cartoon-makers.html] (for younger students) or Pixton [https://www.pixton.com].
Give Characters a Voice
Students may want their comic to be wordless, which is fine, as long as the reader can follow the story. Sequential art is an ancient form of story telling, from cave paintings to stained glass windows. If students want to add text, here are some tips.
In comics, dialogue appears in word balloons (for speech) or thought bubbles (for silent thoughts). The tail of the balloon always points to the speaker. When adding word balloons, tell students to write the words first, and then draw the balloon around them. This way, they can make sure that the words fit! If they want to add text that isn’t dialogue, such as a voice-over or narration, they can add captions (rectangular boxes).
It’s important (and sometimes tricky) to place the balloons and captions so that the reader easily follows along from left to right and top to bottom. A character on the left speak should speak before the character on the right! Have students review each other’s pencil work and suggest changes to text placement as needed to make the flow of reading clear.
Once students have had some experience with three-panel strips, it’s time to go bigger. Raise the level of complexity just a bit by having students use a four- or five-panel strip or page. This means they will have to stretch the middle of their story over more than one panel. Remind them that the first panel should always be the beginning, and the last panel should always be the end. Unless it’s a story about time travel.
In no time they’ll be ready to do full page comics and even comic books. You can find tons of free printable comic page templates at the Comic Book Paper website [http://comicbookpaper.com].
When making full-page or multi-page comics, there are lots of things to think about. Comics is a dynamic and varied art form! What’s the best way to learn how comics work? Read comics! Invite students to read or re-read some of their favorite comics and graphic novels. Challenge them to dive into the cartoonists’ bag of tricks and find ideas that they can use in their own comics. Here are some things to look for.
Freeze Frames: Panels
Have students look at the use of panels (frames that each contain one image). Cartoonists don’t show everything; they create moments in time and the reader must fill in what happens in the gutters (the spaces between the panels). Play some freeze dance games and point out that panels only show the “freeze” moments and the reader must imagine the dance moves that happen in-between.
Not All Panels Are Created Equal
Look at differences in panel sizes and how they affect the reader. A series of smaller panels feels quick, while a larger panel feels slower or more important. Close-up images feel more intimate and can be used to direct attention. The farther away the viewer gets, the more they see, so distance panels can convey setting or situation quickly.
Unusual lettering or colors can draw attention and give emotion to text. Incorporate text into the environment in signs, t-shirts, computer screens, etc. And don’t forget the sound effects – POW! KABOOM! ZOWIE!
Cartoonists often use lines or images to represent ideas. Look for emanata—symbols or icons that convey something you can’t see, like an emotion or a smell. A scribble or cloud above a character’s head can show anger, frustration, or confusion, while a light bulb shows a bright idea. Emanata can have funny names: sweat drops that show that a character is nervous or working hard are called plewds, and wavy lines coming from something that smells are called waftaroms.
Cartoonists also use motion lines to show action. Straight lines behind a character or object show that it is moving forward quickly. Short, wavy lines can show that something or someone is jiggling or dancing. Repeating an image can also make it look like it is moving across a panel.
For kids that really want to take their comics to a higher level, they can create and produce mini comics. A mini comic is any comic that is handmade by the creator.
One Sheet Workshop [http://onesheetworkshop.blogspot.com] shows you how to make a super-fancy comic out of one sheet of paper. Includes a template and directions.
And Doctor Popular [https://laughingsquid.com/how-to-make-your-own-mini-comics/] shows you how to make a one-sheet mini comic with a mini comic that tells you how to make a mini comic. Whew!
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