Comics and Graphic Novels as Primary Sources

I was lucky enough to spend a week this summer learning more about comics and graphic novels through a course offered by the University of the Arts in collaboration with The Library of Congress: Teaching with Primary Sources.  The course cost me a whopping $50! A steal, if you ask me!

I would highly recommend the TPS program to anyone teaching the humanities or the arts.  The Library of Congress has developed digital resources to help students and teachers access original artifacts.  You can use their resources on-line here.  You can also join a network for teachers to share lesson plans and ideas (you can do this without taking the course).

There were a few exercises, led by our instructor Ian Sampson, that I found to be particularly useful when thinking about how to teach students to work as a cartoonist that I would like to share with you.

WARM-UPS. something that I want to do more in my classes to get folks relaxed and pumped up about making art.


We began by looking at classic b&w photos (with striking compositions) and making quick thumbnail sketches of each.  We would look at a projected photo for 30 seconds. The image would be taken away. Then we would sketch it on index cards with brush pens for 30 seconds.

This was an excellent exercise in looking at negative/positive space and thinking about composition.  We looked at some Bresson and was suggested to use for film stills.  I can envision using this in any introductory visual arts class as a hands on way to have students start looking more closely at composition.  It’s great fun and makes for nice quick drawings.



grid out your papers so that it can fit 10 squares each and then draw:

10 places


10 objects


10 concepts


10 words -think about typographical choices


you can then use this bank of images to create a comic! Brilliant!  I also think the class can pin them up and we can use it as a communal bank. What a great way to generate a story when you can’t come up with one on your own.


In this exercise you will draw quickly.  You can begin with a car, house, fish, etc. something simple. This exercise can get folks to simplify an image to its barest components.  In Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus (where this exercise is from) she asks her students to draw Batman and the results are awesome!

draw a house (or something simple)  in 1 minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, 10 seconds


DRAW A MOVIE IN 8 panels

In this exercise, ask the students to pick a movie they know well and then to draw it in 8 panels (on index cards).  Here’s my example (see if you can guess what it is)


we were then asked to remove 2 panels and reduce it to 6.

then to 4, then to 2.

This is such a great exercise in figuring out what’s most important in telling a story. It’s also super fun!  One idea is to have students draw the same movie so the discussion can be focused.


In this exercise we were told to create a one page comic based on the William Carlos Williams poem, The Red Wheelbarrow.  I think mine is pretty atrocious but I liked the challenge and will use it in my classroom.



For our final exercise, we made a single sheet comic. This just means drawing 8 panels or in my case I had three double page spreads plus front and back covers.  The inside of the book can also be used.  It just so happens that the University of the Arts, where I was taking this course, is located across the street from the Union League of Philadelphia where Vice President Pence was speaking on our first day of classes and hence there was a protest gathered outside.  I participated and listened to many powerful speakers and thought about all the families that have been separated.  My single sheet comic was a response to my experience of the protest.

For your students you can ask them to keep a diary of what they did and what they saw in a day.  This can be good material for comics making.


Some good resources:

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice by Brunetti

Drawing A Dialogue: a podcast discussing comics in historical and educational contexts






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s