What superhero does the world need right now? A collaborative comics class exercise

Calucko. Story: Nina Drozdzick, Anne Canute, Sophy Chu, Sherry Xie, Shavonne Yu.

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.

Materials needed: flip chart paper with grids, pencils, markers, enthusiasm, willingness to play.
We only have one table, but there are two pillars and a good amount of floor space.
Discussion included serious consultations and some good laughs.

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.

The Blob

A hero who shape-shifts between Bernie Sanders and whose origins are in bacteria… Story: Keita Ho, Carmela De Torres, Nicole Yu, Melissa Vu, Wendy Ma, Michelle Ma, Jasmine Chan
He has two familiar nemeses.

Hackbird

Hackbird seems a little anxious about the state of the world. Art: Keith Warner-Harder. Story: Keith Warner-Harder, Evan Waterman, Tony Bae, WeiJia Shi, Bolin Tian.

Inberno

Another group also chose a version of Bernie Sanders as their hero… Art: Allison Chiang. Story: Allison Chiang, Athan Ng, Matt Sy, Julie Jo, Jessie Tai.

Calucko

Calucko’s work is more local, but every bit as vital. Art: Anne Canute.

Solar Bear

Solar Bear is the most earnest, most Canadian superhero ever. Even his door-kicking is sweet. Art and story: Sadie Barker, Eric Benedon, Megan Lee, Iona Julian-Walters, Samantha Ng.

Rationelle

Rationelle appears when someone is about to make a poor choice. She takes the form of your mother and uses her powers to force you to make good choices.
Five versions of Rationelle. Not shown: her sidekick Responsibilly. Art and story by Giordano Scales, Justin Hwang, Sam Waller, Terri Anderson, Lawrence Wang

Hackbird

Different designs for Hackbird. Art: Evan Waterman, Keith Warner-Harder, WeiJia Shi and Bolin Tian

Half Life

Half Life as imagined by six different cartoonists. She absorbs pollution to help the world, but at great cost to herself, growing weaker with each adventure. Art and story: Sherry Cheng, Taylor Benn, Krystal Karnik, Brooklyn Yochlowitz Kilfoyle, Jane Park
Half Life at work. Art: Taylor Benn

Shape Shifter

The Shape Shifter takes many forms and is good at punching. Art: Shuxin Sun, Riley Guttman. Story: Shuxin Sun, Riley Guttman, Kelsey Moy, Ava Jung, Blayne Maricle.

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.

The origins of Calucko

Nina Drozdzick
Sherry Xie
Anne Canute
Shavonne Yu
Sophy Chu

The Origins of Hackbird

Keith Warner-Harder
Bolin Tian
Tony Bae
WeiJia Shi
Evan Waterman

Blobbert Saves America

Story: Michael Yang, Isaac Qi, Sandra Lin, Youn Joo Lee, Diane Jung, Karen Tsui, Jimmy Tsang, Linda Cheng, Melissa Woo