From Art to Finish A new Spring Term class has an English professor and an art professor teaming up to guide students through writing and illustrating a comic book.
“Drawings are communications. Anybody who can make a mark on paper is evincing some kind of communication.”
— Leigh Ann Beavers
On a college campus nestled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, two professors devised an ambitious plan: They would blend their powers of writing and drawing to teach students how to create a 14-page comic book from start to finish — in only four weeks.
Perhaps they would need superpowers.
Making Comics, a course taught jointly by Chris Gavaler, assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee, and art instructor Leigh Ann Beavers, had no prerequisites in writing or art. Some students who signed up for the class were apprehensive about their strength in one or both areas.
“It’s been really hard,” said Anthonia Adams ’16, a couple of weeks into the course. “I have the worst drawing in the class.”
Beavers has an opinion about this so-called inability to draw, but we’ll get back to that later. Meanwhile, in the English Department …
It’s no secret on the W&L campus that Gavaler is a fan of comics. He read them as a child, fell away from them, and became obsessed again when his daughter expressed an interest in the form. Since 2009, he has taught a class about superheroes and comics that has examined the superhero character type and the elements of comics as an art. He has written a book on the topic, “On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1,” and has a personal blog, “The Patron Saint of Superheroes.”
One day, it occurred to him that the art of creating comic books would make for a dynamite Spring Term class. He pitched the idea to Beavers, who immediately got on board. It is unusual for two professors to co-teach a class at the university, but Gavaler and Beavers enjoyed the collaboration.
“Leigh Ann and I are really learning as we go,” Gavaler said. “We’re trying to merge two completely different disciplines.”
On the first day of class, students absorbed some of the fundamentals of creating comic books. Gavaler said the average comic book has at least four creators, including a script writer, an artist who makes pencil sketches, someone who inks in the drawings, and one who colors the images. For Making Comics, the students would do it all.
When Gavaler asked the class to talk about comic book clichés, they mentioned tropes such as caped crusaders with dead parents, and half-naked women who must be saved by men. That’s when the professor dropped a surprising opinion about the content of the comics they would make in class: “I strongly recommend no superheroes,” he said. “There are so many clichés attached to the superhero genre.”
Gavaler said writing a script for a comic book is unlike any other writing form he knows. It’s similar to a screenplay, but one must consider that much of the action will occur in the gutters, or the spaces between panels. That action is inferred by the images and text that precede and follow it. For example, if the first panel shows a glass of water teetering on the edge of a table, and the second panel shows a puddle studded with broken glass on the floor, the reader can infer that the glass fell off the table and broke.
To demonstrate the many ways a story can be illustrated, Gavaler and Beavers asked students on the first day to draw a strip that showed a man walking, finding a key on the ground, picking it up and using it to open a door, revealing a hungry lion. Sixteen different versions of the story emerged on the sketch pads.
Their test drawings illustrated some other comics concepts, including:
- Perspective — is the reader looking up, down or parallel at the images?
- Planes — Is the action in the foreground, middle ground or background? Is it flat (like a “Peanuts” strip) or multi-dimensional?
- Framing — What are the sizes and shapes of panels used to sketch the story? Are they all square or are some tall and skinny, rectangular, or even round? Are some panels broken, meaning that a figure protrudes from the frame?
By the second week of the class, students were working simultaneously on script development and sketches. Some worried that they could not draw well enough to do justice to their ideas, but Beavers reassured them. As she explains it, “Drawings are communications. Anybody who can make a mark on paper is evincing some kind of communication.”
She offered some basics to help students brush up on their drawing, and said she has been pleased with their work, no matter how much artistic experience they have. “All of the drawings are really viable,” she said. “There aren’t any weak drawers.”
The pupils are conjuring some fascinating tales in their books. Abby Pannell ‘16 is making a comic that follows a woman as she is diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Anthonia Adams’ book revolves around a young Christian girl who is being tormented by Satan and has to put on “the full armor of God” to drive the devil away. Lindsay George ’16, who is majoring in art history and English, was inspired by the film “Fargo” and photographs by Stephen Short to create a story about a young woman who works at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
“It’s a lot of work,” George said, “but this is the perfect synthesis of my two interests.”
As Spring Term draws to a close, the story of the Making Comics class has become something of a nail-biter itself. Halfway through the third week, most students had only finished a few pages. During class, they hunched over their work in one of the design studios in Wilson Hall, drawing and coloring and critiquing each other’s projects.
Some have set finished pages aside and started all over. Many students are spending hours working on their comics outside of class, but not a one said they were frustrated or bored.
They may have wished for that clichéd superhero to swoop in and help them wrap it up. In a way, they did get saved when the professors gave them an extra weekend to finish their books. When they’re finished, the students will print five color copies each.
“We’re asking a lot of them,” Gavaler said, “but I think they’re all having a really good time, frankly.”