Pen, Ink, and a Strong Story

It’s workshop night at the Comics and Graphic Novels class, and getting and giving critiques is the name of the game
Sawyer Eaton shows her work to the class
Sawyer Eaton, A20, discusses her work during the Comics and Graphic Novels class critique session. Photo: Alonso Nichols
December 19, 2017


Sawyer Eaton, A20, stepped back from the illustrated story that she’d just taped to the blackboard in Braker Hall 118. Her classmates leaned in for a closer look. It was a re-invented fairy tale, one where her imagination—depicted here as a bright orange fox—slips past a unicorn and through an enchanted forest until finally wending its way back home.

It was beautifully drawn, but Eaton was unsure: should she more clearly mark the transition from reality—the first panel, executed in black and white, showed an artist confronted by a blank sketchbook—into fantasy? Perhaps introducing squiggly lines? “Would that be something that would help—or would it be distracting and not make any sense?” she asked.

For Eaton and eight other classmates that December evening, nothing was more important than getting the story right. It was the last chance for group feedback before the end of their Experimental College course, Comics and Graphic Novels: Theory and Practice, developed and taught by Anna Christine, a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department, and Ex College graduate teaching fellow.

Christine had been laying the groundwork for this workshopping class throughout the fall semester with a blend of critical readings, practice assignments, and field trips to comic and graphic novel bookstores—all of which, she said, confirm the surging respect for these genres.

“My goal is to have them learning from each other and trying out their ideas in an environment where they’re comfortable taking risks,” she said. “One thing we talked about on the first day was a standard definition of comics: they are sequential art. But all along the way, we’ve been valuing communication over technical mastery.”

Indeed, comics—or visual storytelling—seek to “invite the reader in,” she said. “To be able to arrive at the end of a comic and feel a sense of completion—that’s the goal.”

The zine "Balcony." Photo: Alonso NicholsChristine, whose academic focus is British modernism and film, has been drawing and thinking about comics for almost 20 years. She has published comics online and in the print publication Resist!, edited by Françoise Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman, and has presented academic papers on graphic novels such as Charles Burns’ Black Hole. She’s also taken classes at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

As an advocate for comics and graphic novels as a serious topic of study, she points to examples now recognized as literary forms, including Art Spiegelman’s Maus, about his family and the Holocaust, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

But Christine is also eager to lower barriers to creating this art form, encouraging students intrigued by comics and graphic novels to give it a try. As she makes clear in her class description: “No artistic talent or experience is necessary; all you need is . . . a dogged determination to figure out how comics work.”

Aster Ricks, A18, discusses their zine "Balcony," with class instructor Anna Christine, center, enjoying the moment. Photo: Alonso NicholsHer students started by studying established cartoon strips, reading from books like Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, and writing their own autobiographical comic. Homework assignments also included visiting a local comic book store, like Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square, and picking out a zine to share in class.

By December, the students were ready to share their final projects on Workshop Day. One offering was a pocket-size zine called Balcony, which centered on the exploits of friends—including a vampire—living in an apartment building. Another featured delicately drawn memories that recalled childhood conversations with mom, including a flashback within a flashback. Then there was one simply called Home, in which each of the four oversized capital letters becomes the frame for memories of adjusting to life in Taiwan. Another student placed her comic in the Scottish Highlands and translated her friends into Scottish characters reveling at the New Year’s celebration known as Hogmanay.  

Quinn Guarino, A18, displays his work at the workshop session. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe projects all pushed boundaries, Christine said. “I feel very proud,” she added. “They have a new way of thinking now about comics, and will see their work as always kind of a draft and an experiment, as something that they can keep refining.”

That was certainly true with M.J. Griego, A19. At the other end of the whiteboard from Eaton, Griego had printed out pages from a webcomic that takes place on a post-apocalyptic planet, and where survivors are starting over, centered around a vision for cooperative living.

Griego was grappling with the background and framing, and asked for help from classmates. “I don’t have panels at all, I just don’t have them,” Griego said to them. “And I want to make sure the reader has some idea of where people are. So, I’d love ideas.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at