Visiting artist, Heather McAdams, developed the Autobiographical Comic Strip project for the University of Illinois at Chicago Contemporary Community Curriculum Initiative 2000.
Autobiographical Comic Strips

Ask any group of kids to make a list of words that come to mind when they hear the words comic strip and they’ll most likely come with words like funny...superhero...action comic...Sunday funnies... Now these are all valid associations, but oddly do not have much to do with what’s been going on with some of the best “contemporary” comic art of the last 25 years!

Comics are one of the most popular and interesting art movements of the 20th Century. Today’s comic artists didn’t want to be defined by outdated notions associated with mainstream commercial comics, but instead chose to pioneer new ground--oftentimes using the comic strip as therapy, social commentary, or storytelling that has nothing to do with traditional “gag writing.” For example, Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Spiegleman’s epic work, Maus, movingly tells the story of his father’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp.

Some of the best contemporary comic artists draw in a primitive and honest style more related to folk art, children’s art, or what is variously called Art Brut or Outsider Art than to Dynamic Anatomy-inspired realism. Even comics that deal in more traditional comic subject matter use increasingly varied and experimental design and drawing.

In this project, students and teachers create autobiographical comics that explore some interesting moments in their lives. Some of the comics eschew traditional narrative structures and instead are composed as lists, whimsically recreating the author’s subjectivity through a series of idiosyncratic observations.

Comics are a youth-oriented medium. Students appreciate being given the knowledge and skills to tell stories about their lives in a medium that they find exciting. Autobiographical comics are a great way to introduce the art curriculum to the larger community. Comics can be printed in school and local newspapers or used to create shows about contemporary student life in school or community gallery settings. Students can create inexpensively printed or xeroxed collaborative comic books and distribute them for free or sell them as an art fundraiser.

Drawing autobiographical comics is not necessarily an easy project. It takes time and skillful teaching to help students create meaningful and well-designed comic artwork. Use Heather McAdams’ fabulous brainstorming and designing tips to help students develop the capacity to tell stories about their lives and to help students appreciate a really cool art form.