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Comics Creation & Critical Thinking: From Doctor Who to Bitstrips

Like so many insights in life, this one was prompted by Doctor Who.

Gutierrez Victory of the Daleks 354x500 Comics Creation & Critical Thinking: From Doctor Who to BitstripsTo be specific, in early 2011 I wrote a couple of photonovels based upon S5 episodes—oh, and what episodes they were. Anyway, I thought the project would be something of a breeze: all the images already existed (not to mention the original TV scripts), so all I had to do was pare down the dialogue to fit in word balloons, add some exposition in captions, and make sure I chose the best possible screen grabs to tell the story.

Easy, right?

Except that on television, I soon realized, characters aren’t so obliging as to speak in left-to-right order in any given shot… that is, in the direction that we here in the West read print text. Also, when sound effects or off-screen dialogue occurs on TV, it doesn’t conceal key bits of visual information that occur simultaneously. You see, in comics, to state the obvious, everything auditory is visual as well by necessity, and thus eats into the limited real estate available on the page.

So this is when I first appreciated how transliteracy skills in composition were required when crafting this particular form of comics. After all, this was pretty different from writing comics in full-script mode, a task at which I was fairly experienced: I couldn’t just describe certain graphics and then sit back and smile as artists went about realizing them. Instead, I had a pre-existing, highly defined set of assets that I couldn’t add to or alter in significant ways. In short, the “easy” part of this authoring assignment turned out to be the hard part.

Reflecting on this project, I came to appreciate anew all the comics creation (sometimes called “comics generators”) tools that have sprung up over the past few years. For a nice survey of the features of some of the leading providers, check out this piece on ASCD’s site (despite the fact that it calls comics panels “frames”).

Gutierrez The Lodger 353x500 Comics Creation & Critical Thinking: From Doctor Who to BitstripsWith this is in mind, I’ve decided to run a series of brief interviews with those who are far more knowledgeable about this emerging edtech field than I am. The emphasis will be on critical thinking and media literacy throughout, so please prepare yourself to see many of the same questions repeated from one interview subject to the next.

First up is Shahan Panth, “one of the guys from the team at Bitstrips for Schools, a website that lets students make and share comics without having to draw.” And, hey, did you notice the key part there—the lack of wholly original graphics, and how that connects to my personal example with the Doctor Who adaptations? Essentially—and this is something Bitstrips shares with its less popular competitors (many thousands of educators use the site)—all the images used in the sequential narratives are ready-made: backgrounds, avatars, pre-designed word balloons, and so on. Sure, there is some flexibility in selecting, tweaking, and arranging these visual materials, but it’s precisely the lack of pen-and-paper freedom to create anything that one imagines that forces users to make important critical thinking decisions. Of course addressing such formal issues of production, especially when they occur in the service of constructing a narrative out of given visual/story elements (as with digital storytelling and documentary-style video), effectively heightens media literacy skills as well.

Okay, enough for now. Here’s my chat with Shahan…

Bitstrips for Schools 2 Comics Creation & Critical Thinking: From Doctor Who to BitstripsWhy do you think in recent years there seems to be a huge interest in comics creation in schools? Has something changed in pedagogy, curriculum, or maybe the presence/role of comics generally in our culture?

I think the shift has mostly been cultural. Comics for a long time seemed to be defined by just a few genres – superhero stories, Archie comics, Sunday Funnies – and the popular perception was that their subject matter was necessarily trivial. But I think there’s a much wider appreciation today for comics as a medium, as valid and versatile as, say, film. They can be used to communicate literally anything, and there are a lot of amazing titles out there. My impression is that librarians were the first ones in schools to pick up on this, stocking their shelves more and more with school-appropriate comics.

Talk to me about the “critical thinking” piece. Or maybe the “media literacy” or “visual literacy” aspects. That is, how does creating comics help students in areas beyond the obvious ones such as writing?

Making a comic is not simple. You need to figure out the visual composition of each panel, the sequencing and pacing of your story, the body language and facial expression of each character in each shot. It’s a synthesis of so many different things, and for most kids, these are elements they haven’t had to think about before. Suddenly they find themselves in the role of comic auteur, responsible for considering and communicating every detail of a story. I remember looking at the instructions that one teacher on our site gave her students: “Please make sure your comics make sense, with a beginning, middle and end.” It sounds like a funny directive, but it speaks to how hard it really is to take an idea from your imagination and translate it into the finite visual space of a comic.

What’s something that many educators don’t realize about the value of their students’ making comics?

I’ll answer this one with a story that a teacher shared with us recently. She had a student who seemed very distracted in class and didn’t complete most of his assignments. His writing journal was almost empty and he would attempt classroom tasks very half-heartedly. After introducing her students to comic-writing, he was transformed. He not only completed his assignments, he created a multi-part mystery comic on his own initiative, including cliff-hangers and dream sequences. She described his work with comics as “demonstrating a level of sophistication uncommon among his peers.” He was recently tested and just missed the criteria for being designated as gifted.

Not every student is going to blossom as soon as they’re given the opportunity to make comics, but this example shows pretty starkly that kids need the opportunity to try something other than simple prose writing. The more variety kids have for expressing themselves, the more we’re going to discover talented students like the one this teacher did.

Great, and thanks so much for your time!

Bitstrips for Schools1 Comics Creation & Critical Thinking: From Doctor Who to Bitstrips

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…and thank you for reading. Please stay tuned for upcoming posts in this series, which include spotlights on The Graphic Classroom’s Chris Wilson as swell as on MakeBeliefsComix.com’s Bill Zimmerman.

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About Peter Gutierrez

Comments

  1. Thanks for this interview and insights. I’ve been using Bitstrips for Schools for a few years and my students do enjoy it. At times, I have toggled between comics in which they create their own art and Bitstrips, where they don’t. I think comics and graphic stories bring another element into the picture. What I am not so sure about is how webcomics fits into our notions of digital literacies. So many teaching journals now feature teachers talking about webcomics as part of an overall digital strategy … but just because it is online does not make it digital literacy (in my mind). I’d love to see webcomics sites add more possibilities of embedding video and audio, and then we can talk about webcomics as digital literacy.
    I’m not sure if other folks agree with me or not. (And I respect Shahan’s view).
    I do like this comment from him:
    “Making a comic is not simple. You need to figure out the visual composition of each panel, the sequencing and pacing of your story, the body language and facial expression of each character in each shot. It’s a synthesis of so many different things, and for most kids, these are elements they haven’t had to think about before. ”
    Very important part of the critical use of comics, from reader AND writer.
    Kevin

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  3. [...] began with an interview with one of the founders of Bitstrips (and I use Bitstrips for Schools fairly regularly in my classroom). Bitstrip’s Shahan Panth [...]