Graphic Novel Writing

When medieval scribes created books by hand, text and images existed together on the page, intimately woven together. For hundreds of years when Europeans opened a book this was how they experienced a story—through both text and image. Then the Gutenberg printing press appeared in the fifteenth century, capable of rendering text but not images, and so for five hundred years printing technology shaped the western conception of the book as a text-only medium. In the twentieth century, printing technology changed, allowing for the mass-production of books that once again combined images and text. Medieval works are known as “illuminated manuscripts” but today’s the art form has many names: sequential art, narrative art, visual narratives, comic strips, graphic novels, or simply, comics.


This course explores the new yet old medium of comics from the perspective of the writer/artist who attempts to create meaning by combining words and pictures. It is a hybrid class merging elements of a literature course with a workshop. Students will learn the history of comics’ emergence and evolution through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the terminology of comics, the grammar of visual storytelling and its connection to the language of film, the various comic industry standards for scriptwriting (loose or detailed) and story structure (stand-alone stories, chapters in serialized stories, and full-length graphic novels), and the skills for reading comics critically. The workshop will provide a complete introduction to the craft of writing stories for comics in all their many forms from conception to final layout. Students will take an existing work of fiction or memoir completed in a previous course, translate it into the comics medium, and complete a polished graphic narrative of at least 22 pages (the typical length of a comic issue or graphic novel chapter).


This advanced writing course is intended for students who have already completed an advanced fiction or creative non-fiction workshop and are familiar with the basics of storytelling such as character development, plot, point-of-view, dialog, et cetera.


  1)  A hardbound blank sketchbook of at least 150 pages
  2)  A small notebook and pen to keep in your pocket
  3)  Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art  by Scott McCloud
  4)  Making Comics  by Scott McCloud
  5)  The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics  by Dennis O'Neil
  6)  Comics & Sequential Art   by Will Eisner
  7)  Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative   by Will Eisner
  8)  Watchmen  by Allan Morre
  9)  Pride of Baghdad   by Brian K. Vaughan
 10)  A Contract with God   by Will Eisner
  11) You will be required to print up to 18 copies of your story at the semester’s


Professional Writers & Artists Keep a Notebook

Step 1: Purchase a small pocket-sized notebook, and a larger 8x11 or similar blank notebook where you will record ideas for stories, write out plots, take notes about a character, sketch characters, et cetera. You may not just use your phone or an Ipad program. Why? Because the delete key is too easy, to tempting, and too permanent. This notebook will be your quarry that can be mined for material as you write.


Step 2: Brainstorm “chapters,” sections, or other ways of subdividing and organizing the notebook (I will show you my notebooks as examples, but there is no right or wrong way to do this.)


If you already keep a notebook and want to use it during this class, that is great.


Examination of the Graphic Novel Landscape

The purpose of this assignment is to have you investigate and consciously examine what graphic novels you have read, why you have read these works, how you find new works to read, and which works you want to read.


Step 1:  Print the list of “The Greatest Graphic Novels, Ever” and highlight the books you

         have read.

After completing the highlighting, reflect on what it reveals. Are there some categories with lots of highlighting and other categories with very little/no highlighting? Is there an “empty” place that you’d like to be full of highlighting? Did you recognize many or some of the novels you have not read? Of the novels you have read, how did you first hear about these books? What made you want to read them?


Step 2:  Add books to the list.

The list I have created is purposefully incomplete. Add 15-20 books to existing categories or create a new category and suggest 15-20 books for it. After you have found 10-15 graphic novels, reflect upon how you found these books. What methods did you choose? Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Is this your normal way of locating books to read? How did this process differ from the normal way you find books to read?


Step 3:  Create a “to do list”

List 20-25 graphic novels you have not read but believe you should in order to be well versed in graphic storytelling. Reflect upon why you chose the books you chose. What do your choices reveal about your thoughts, politics, values, fictional aesthetics, artistic aesthetics, et cetera?


Completed Short Story


Original Comic

Over the semester, you will take an existing work of fiction or memoir you completed in a previous course and translate it into the comics medium to complete a polished graphic narrative of at least 22 pages (the typical length of a comic issue or graphic novel chapter). This must be a new comic—old work you have previously written or been working on is not allowed. (I have educational reasons for this restriction). You will turn in 4 drafts of your comic over the semester.


After you submit your completed short story you may not begin a new or different comic, so don’t ask. Writing and drawing comics is a very lengthy process—professional comic book writers work on a single story for years, and their feelings about the story fluctuate wildly. You will experience this fluctuation—so at times, you will be excited about the story, and other times you will hate the story and want to abandon it. You need to learn to anticipate these feelings and work past them.


Character Pages


Final Portfolio

At the end of the semester, you will turn in a final portfolio which consists of three parts:  1) A final draft of your original comic, revised based upon classmate & instructor critiques.  2) Your character pages.  3) A reflection essay of 3-4 pages (formatted according to MLA guidelines)

Explore your composition process over the semester, from the initial invention stages through the final revision. Discuss any weaknesses you see in the final version as well as its strengths. How and why did you make the revisions that you did? How does the current draft compare to the first draft? How did the story evolve over the semester? What techniques did you employ or try to employ? What affect did you hope to achieve with these techniques? Did you succeed? Why did you make the choices you made with respect to form, character, and plot? Reflect upon your workshop experience.

Alternative Assignments

Craft Analysis of a Graphic Novel

For this assignment, you will choose a graphic novel from list of “The Greatest Graphic Novels Ever” and write a multi-part analysis of the craft techniques the author/artist used. Write the first part about the choices of panel transitions. Compare the panel transitions with Scott McCloud’s different transition types. Which transitions did the author use? Why? What was the effect? Were they appropriate for the story? Et cetera.


In the second part, discuss the choice of moments within each panel. Of all the moments in time to choose, why did the author/artist choose that moment? In the third part, discuss the internal composition of the panels. How does the author/writer frame each “shot” and what are the effects of these choices? In the fourth part, discuss the overall stylistic feel of the story—does the style reflect the dominant culture of the author/artist (North America, Europe, Japan)? Is it a hybrid style? Who do you think the author’s influences may have been? Where would you place the story in the landscape of graphic storytelling? How would it be classified? Is it a genre story? Does it follow or violate any genre conventions? Is it full color or black and white and why?

Course Calendar

Intro & History of Comics

Week 1 – Class Introduction

  Tues: First Day

•  welcome!

•  ice-breakers

•  class introduction & syllabus review


  Thurs: Defining Comics & Pre-Modern Examples

•  What is “sequential art?”

•  early visual language: Mayan sequential art, Bayeux Tapestry

•  medieval illuminated manuscripts & how the printing press killed narrative art

•  the return of images fused with text in the 18th century

•  William Blake’s works and other 19th century examples

•   reading: Understanding Comics pp1-59 (chaps 1&2)

•   assignment due: writer/artist notebook


Week 2 – Narrative Art in the Twentieth Century

  Tues: Early Twentieth Century

•  the rebirth of narrative art in the twentieth century as comics due to changes in technology

•  the pulps and the slicks

•  Europe vs. Japan vs. North America


  Thurs: From 1980 Onward

•  comics become graphic novels

•  manga enters the American market

•  readings: Making Comics pp212-243

•  assignment due: a completed short story


The Craft of Comics

Week 3 – Characterization in Comics

  Tues: Drawing People

•  facial expressions

•  body language

•  review of character sketch assignment


  Thurs: Character Design

•  think of your characters as shapes

•  character design as a function of genre

•  readings: Making Comics pp58-127

•  assignment due: examining the graphic novel landscape


Week 4 – Producing Contemporary Comics

  Tues: Nuts & Bolts

•  how artists traditionally work: pen, pencil & ink

•  new digital tools

•  how the choice of tool effects the look and feel of a comic

•  Bristol board—how the original artwork is larger than the printed book

•  photo blue pencil

•  readings: Making Comics pp184-211


  Thurs: Comics by the Numbers / Industry Conventions

•  typical page sizes, chapter lengths, number of panels per page, average word count per panel

•  stand-alone stories, chapters in serialized stories, and full-length graphic novels

•  miniseries vs. maxiseries

•  the 3-act structure adapted to graphic novels

•  assignment due: character sketches


Week 5 – Panel Size, Layout, & Transitions p1

•  the grammar of panel layouts

•  the hook & the splash page

•  McCloud’s ideas of the gutter from chaps3&4 of U.C.

•  reading: Understanding Comics pp60-117 (chaps 3-4)


Week 6 – Panel Size, Layout, & Transitions p2

•  the six types of panel transitions (based upon the content within each panel)

•  readings: Making Comics: pp8-57

•  assignment due: rough sketch of panel layout + rough text placement for your entire comic


Week 7 – Composition Within Panels

  Tues: Lessons from Photography

•  wide-shots, medium shots, close-ups

•  the rule of threes


  Thurs: Lessons from Film

•  the “invisible style” of Hollywood cinema

•  following eye lines

•  don’t break the 180-degree line (vs. Ozu)

•  establishing shots

•  the innovative techniques of Orson Welles

•  readings: Making Comics pp158-183

•  film: Ozu’s Drifting Weeds

•  film: Casablanca

•  film: Citizen Kane


Week 8 – Text, Speech Balloons, and Captions

  Tues: The Basics

•  industry terminology

•  Scott McCloud’s seven categories of word-picture combinations


  Thurs: Experimental & Innovative Techniques

•  avant-garde & innovative caption techniques (ex: Unknown Soldier, Watchmen)

•  reading: Making Comics pp128- 157

•  reading: Understanding Comics pp138-161 (chap6)

•  readings: Unknown Soldier, Watchmen


Week 9 – World Building & Connecting Artistic Style to Theme

  Tues: World Building


  Thurs: Conveying Emotion Through Images

•  McCloud’s ideas about making emotions visible (from chap5 of Understanding Comics)

•  reading: Understanding Comics pp118-137 (chap5)

•  assignment due: second draft of your comic—fully penciled artwork & complete text


Week 10 – Looking to the Future: Questioning Graphic Novel Conventions

  Tues: The Conventional Publishing Model

•  the economic model of artist-publisher-printer-distributor-retailer

•  digital publishing

•  self publishing


  Thurs: The Convention of the Page

•  how digital comics can change the nature of panel transitions

•  how digital art can change the aesthetics of comics

•  reading: Reinventing Comics pp1-125 (part1) and pp128-241 (part2)


Week 11 – Comic Book Scriptwriting

•  various comic industry standards for scriptwriting



assignment due: third draft of your comic—fully inked and colored


Week 12 – Workshop

•  workshop of students 1, 2, 3

•  workshop of students 4, 5, 6


Week 13 – Workshop

•  workshop of students 7, 8, 9

•  workshop of students 10, 11, 12


Week 14 – Workshop

•  workshop of students 13, 14, 15

•  workshop of students 16, 17, 18



Week 15 – Final Week

  Tues: Publishing Your Work

•  publishing short pieces in literary journals

•  publishing longer works as writer/artist

•  publishing longer works as writer only

•  soliciting comic book publishers with a script

•  self-publishing on the web


  Thurs: Wrap up & Conclusion

•  end of semester self-assessment

•  instructor evaluations


Week 16

•  exam week—no class!

•  assignment due: final portfolio