What superhero does the world need right now? A collaborative comics class exercise
I made up this exercise for my 200-level Intro to Comics class in the UBC Creative Writing Program. It’s intended to be an opportunity for students to work collaboratively on character development, story structure and page composition, building on concepts we’d been discussing over the term. We started it on Tuesday, November 8—total coincidence I swear — and finished on Thursday, about 1.5 to 2 hours in all. It could definitely be given more time if you wanted to ensure that each group completed their pages.
The exercise starts with the question “What superhero does the world need right now?” Each student responded to this question individually, writing for about 7 minutes in the notebooks they have been keeping since the beginning of term. As they wrote, voting had started in the US, but we had no idea what the outcome would be.
Our class meets in a lecture hall in the Chemistry building. After they finished writing, the students quickly transformed it into a working comics studio for the next steps.
First group task: figuring out who the superhero is, their powers, origin story, costume, nemesis, sidekick, etc… Students either combined their ideas from the individual writing exercise, chose one person’s idea to develop, or came up with something totally new.
When the students came back for class on Thursday, the election was over and it was a different world. Personally, I wish we had these heroes for real — maybe it would help? But in all seriousness, as people all over the world struggled with despair, grief and anger, I was grateful to be in the midst of a group of cartoonists making art. Whether we’re students or teachers, professional artists or beginners, what would we do without art? For comfort, expression, respite... It was great to watch the students — many of whom were pretty stressed about the results of the election — building their stories, focusing, concentrating, laughing, creating new worlds. Playing. As James Kochalka writes in his comics essay The Horrible Truth About Comics,
The creation of art should be accompanied by a sense of play… Play is a heightened state of imaginative awareness that allows us to enter new realms of discovery… Play and art are the same thing!
(Tangent: If you haven’t read Kochalka’s collection of essays, The Cute Manifesto, you should.)
So the focus for Day 2 was building a story. It could be an origin story, a fight with the nemesis or something else of their choosing. Students developed the story together and each drew a page. Here are a few of the finished pages from class. There are more, and I wish I could include them, but they’re in pencil, and not dark enough to show up in photos, or in some cases not enough pages got finished to give an idea of the story. But they all represented hard work, creativity, serious thinking and playfulness. Big thanks to my students for being good sports when I try out experimental exercises, and for giving permission for me share your work (story and art attributed wherever possible; please tell me if there are any errors or omissions).
You can download exercise instructions here if you want, and please let me know if you use it! I’m curious about how it goes and what you would change.