This week focused on character development. The previous week I'd asked the students to bring in a favorite comic (from a book, newspaper, or online) if they wanted. I also brought in several of my own. I started by passing out sheets of lined paper, and after describing a character from one of the comics of their choosing in as much detail as possible out loud, I had them write down either a paragraph or a list with enough concrete descriptions of their characters' physical appearances and personalities so that I'd be able to identify them later. I collected these and was happy to see that almost all of the students had written with great specificity.
I then handed out eight-page packets on character development. The first page showed how to draw proportions and then warp those proportions, the second gave ideas on how to create a character using clothes, props, body language, and facial expressions, the third showed how to draw a "cute" character, the fourth a "villainous" character, the fifth a "goofy" character, the sixth showed how to give a character a line of action, and the seventh and eighth contained lots of ideas for faces. I have to give great thanks to Tom Chalkley for supplying these pages to me. I knew there was a lot in this packet for an elementary school student, but I wanted to give them an excellent reference for creating their characters. The students loved them.
Next, I did a quick exercise showing them how to draw proportions (again using the chalkboard) by demonstrating how to sketch out eight lines and space out the head, neck, arms, etc. I didn't want to spend too long on teaching them how to draw; the beauty of comics is that one can tell a thoughtful story using just stick figures. I'm hoping to achieve a nice balance between using pictures and words to convey ideas. Hopefully, without having to explicitly tell them, the students are picking up on the relationship between the two. After they had drawn a proportional person, I passed out a sample of a cartoon character study by a particularly whimsical cartoonist and had them come up with three their own original characters.
I emphasized putting just as much detail into their character drawings as they had to their paragraphs at the start of class. I asked them a lot of questions as they worked: If your character is mad all the time, how would you show that in his or her face? In the body language? I even had the kids model different emotions for each other: Show the other kids at your table how you look when you're scared. Show them an action that someone who plays sports would do.
My favorites include a plaid banana with five legs, an egg-man with raccoon eyes and flails for arms, a jar of pickles named Picks, a tricked-out chainsaw with arms and legs, teenage bacterium, a spoon with legs (and nothing else), and a series of characters made out of springs and one eye. So far so good. Especially considering they had about ten minutes with which to work.
I'm hoping that by having emphasized dialogue and character the first two weeks, by the time we were writing full comics, all of their stories would be character-driven and detail-heavy. I suppose one could argue against this, but I'm hoping by focusing on these two elements of creative writing, the plots and settings will naturally emerge. It seemed to work really well in week three when I combined the two to brainstorm a trial comic with the students, but we'll see what happens in their final pieces.
On a side-note, I thought I might introduce them to a new comic each week to give them ideas, so I read Edward Gorey's The Wuggly Ump, which is a great little comic written in heroic couplets about a monster and some unsuspecting children. I didn't think it was particularly frightening but several wide-eyed kids asked me if I was sure the monster wasn't real when I'd finished and asked me not to read any more in the following weeks. They told me it was because they would rather use the time to write but I suspect otherwise.