Designing Autobiographical Comic Strips
with Heather McAdams
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 authors
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. Autobiographic 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
You may wish to review contemporary comic material before sharing
it with students. There are alternative comics that some may reasonably
believe are not appropriate to teach in a middle school or high
school curriculum. But as Heather McAdams says, This doesnt
mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater
and not expose students to this rich and wonderful contemporary
art form. Just because there are thousands of x-rated, trashy movies,
should we not teach teens about cinematography? Heck, no! Its
up to art teachers to educate themselves about the variety and quality
of contemporary comic artists, so that they can teach kids more
effectively about this powerful (and often forgotten) medium."
Paper: 11 by 14 Canson
or Strathmore Acid Free Drawing Paper or Bristol Board
Pencils: (2B-4B) or Black Warrior
or Tigonderoga pencils #2 or EX-SOFT #1
Erasers: ARTGUM and erasers for
the end of the pencil
Pens: Extra fine, fine, and medium
pens like permanent ink such as Sharpies or Staedtler Lumocolor
Dip pens: Speedball Pen, type
Pen tips: Bowl point #512 (the
White out: Kinkos Multipurpose
Ink: Higgins Black Magic
Brushes: Smallest sizes (#0 and
#1), short handless, sable (or sabeline) brushes.
Rapidiograph pens: a set or buy
them individually. Sizes .80 (green) and .35
(gray) are nice sizes to start.
STEP #1 GETTING THE IDEA
COMPLETE THE McADAMS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
COMIC STRIP WORKSHEET
The purpose of this questionnaire is to help you to recall some
rich and meaningful stories in your life out of which to make a
comic strip. The questions are designed to spark memories that will
be fun and interesting to draw and share. It is important to stimulate
your mind by writing down many stories. In much the same way an
athlete needs to stretch and warm up for a game, we oftentimes need
to do warm-up exercises before making art. In addition, we need
many stories to chose from for our final comic strip and for many
more future works.
Click here to
print out Comic Questionnaires for the Autobiographical Comics project.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR FILLING OUT THE QUESTIONNAIRE:
You can write just enough to spark the memory or tell the whole
story. Write as much as you need to in order to recall unusual or
You can skip any question that doesnt apply to you.
You can work on the questions in any order you want to.
You can write more than one answer/story to a particular question.
WHEN YOU ARE DONE FILLING OUT THE QUESTIONS:
Read what you have written. One of these stories will JUMP OUT at
you as the one that you want to tell, the one that you want to draw,
the one that you want to make into a comic strip!
When you have decided on what story you want to do, try to visualize
how you might begin laying out the panels.
What will you most look forward to drawing?
Imagine telling the story in front of a group of people. Where does
the story begin? How does it end?
Are there any funny parts? Sad parts?
Do you think it will be a one or two page comic strip?
Is there any opportunity to write dialogue?
This is your homework--have fun thinking about your story until
the next class.
You are an expert on your story.
Your story does not have to be funny.
There is no subject too small! ! !
STEP #2 THE ROUGH OR QUICK SKETCH
Look at the examples of a rough sketch.
Use a pen. Divide the piece of paper into 12 panels, leaving space
for your title. Are you going to work horizontally or vertically?
Begin laying out your comic strip. Dont get too detailed now.
Try to capture the essence of the action in your drawings.
Use soft pencils so that you can make a clearly seen line without
having to indent or permanently mark the paper. After the inking
you want to be able to cleanly erase all the pencil lines. With
a hard surface paper and a soft pencil, you should be able to do
this erasing cleanly, quickly, neatly. As you begin your sketch
test erase your pencilwork with a soft eraser in order to understand
the correct pencil and pressure to use.
PURPOSE OF ROUGH SKETCH IS TO....
1. Figure out placement of words in relation to pictures.
2. Nail down the wording. This includes dialogue, thoughts, narration,
3. Figure out how many panels you will need.
4. Practice. Loosen up!
TIPS OF THE TRADE & HINTS FROM HEATHER
1. Use dialogue and thought balloons whenever you can. It brings
characters to life. Remember, you can write your own dialogue exactly
the way you want your readers to hear it. (Example: Here ya
go Dea...an say Hullo to yur Mutha for me!)
2. You can add commentary by writing something with an arrow pointing
to someone or something. Putting a little box around it sometimes
3. Exaggerate. If your character is nervous, dont rely on
drawing facial expressions. Think about it first. What kind of body
language does a nervous person have? Biting fingernails? Buckets
of sweat sliding down his face? Shaking all over. Forget about realism.
4. Give your characters visible and distinguishing traits so that
they are always recognizable to your reader no matter how bad your
drawing may get! (Example: my character has big teeth, ponytail,
and cowboy boots.)
5. Use metaphors! If you felt like a square at a prom, draw your
head as a square! It is funnier and probably more fun and easier
to draw. If you stuck your foot in your mouth at an interview, you
may want to consider drawing just that! And if you write, It
was raining cats and dogs...well, you get the picture.
6. Its an autobiographical comic so get personal. Draw from
your point of view and how you felt/feel about the situation.
7. Use the language of cartoons! Words like CLUNK! SLURP, HA HA,
GRUNT, SPLAT, AAAAHHHHHHHH!, HELP! will help you to get your point
across faster and more directly if you use them. Symbols like: lightbulbs
above a head, stars and birds circling a head, fume lines, hearts,
teardrops or sweat drops, puffs of smoke disappearing around a corner,
lots of ZZZZZZZZZZZs are part of the established language of comics.
8. HAVE FUN!
Get copies of Scott McClouds Understanding
Comics and his Reinventing
Comics. These books are invaluable resources for constructing
comic lesson plans (that is to say, lesson plans about comics) concerning
iconography, naturalism, transitions, the representation of time,
and other comic-producing issues.
For on-line sources, contact: scottmccloud.com.
STEP #3 THE PENCIL SKETCH
With a sharp pencil (and an eraser and pencil sharpener close at
hand) begin drawing your comic strip on bristol board. Use your
rough sketch as a guide.
Start by drawing the outside border. Then draw in your panels. Decide
whether you want to use space between the panels or not. Some cartoonists
like to use rulers when they draw borders; others (like me) prefer
a looser look.
MAKE DECISIONS, MAKE CHANGES
Remember that nothing is ever set in stone. This is also the time
to make changes, erase, nail down dialogue, make decisions about
the tiny compositions of each panel, etc. Change the sizes of the
panels if necessary, make adjustments, but you should be getting
more detailed in your drawing and neater with your printing. Try
to work out any problems at this stage. You will be ready to move
on to Step #4 only when you have resolved all the little problems
with your comic.
Read your comic strip all the way through. Does it read the way
you want it to? Do you think readers will understand what you are
trying to say? Will it evoke the emotions and feelings that you
are trying to evoke? Is it funny where you want it to be? Sad where
you want it to be? Show it to someone you know and ask him or her
to give you feedback.
When you feel content with your pencil sketch and excited about
inking it, then you know that you have completed this step.
STEP #4 INKING
The last of the four steps in completing your comic strip is to
ink your pencil sketch. It doesnt really matter what tool
you use, but I suggest either permanent sharpies or speedball dip
pens with Higgins Black Magic Ink in a bottle. Its better
to use permanent marker because it doesnt smudge and its
easier to cleanly cover with white out than water-based markers
that tend to mix with the white out.
Its important that lines be black (not grayish). You can check
this at an early stage in the drawing by making a xerox of the developing
comic. If you cant make a xerox that shows crisp black lines
against a white background, you need to create darker lines that
will contrast more clearly with the background. You can ink your
comic strip any way you want. I generally begin with the lines and
do my shading afterward. Try to consider the entire page as a composition,
achieving a balance of lights and darks, small panels and large
panels. This step is usually the most enjoyable for me. I love to
develop the individual panels, adding patterns and shadows to give
them more depth and texture creating tiny worlds for my viewers.
Collect samples of comic art. Note the very different ways artists
use hatching, lines, patterns, dots, solid blacks, and other devices
to create interesting effects. Often the way in which the comic
is inked is an important aspect of the artists unique style.
If you make a mistake, you can use white out. I suggest a thin white
out like Kinkos Multi-Purpose Correction Fluid. If you can
still see the ink underneath after applying, put on another coat.
Let it dry thoroughly before inking over the top of the white out.
Try not to use white out if you can. Be spontaneous and let inking
accidents become part of the design choices when possible. But dont
worry about some cakey looking white out on your drawing.
Remember that the ultimate goal of a comic is reproduction in a
print medium so as long as it can be xeroxed, photographed, or scanned
so that the white out doesnt show, its not a problem.
When you are done with the inking, erase all of the pencil lines.
Be extra careful when erasing over areas where white out was used!
Click here to
print out Process Plans for the Autobiographical Comics project.