Philip Nel > Courses > English 440: The Graphic Novel (Fall 2016) > Mini-Projects


Philip Nel's English 440: Comics & Graphic Novels

DUE: Sept. 13, Sept. 29, Oct. 27, Nov. 15, Dec. 6.
LENGTH: varies (see below).


In response to our readings and to get you to engage with the core questions of the course (How do comics work? and What do comics do?), you will complete five mini-projects —  roughly one every two weeks —  over the course of the semester. These projects involve both image and text, though you do not need to be an artist to do them. Trust me. I am not an artist either. For each assignment, I have adapted (well, OK, coopted) the work of two people who both draw and teach comics: Ivan Brunetti and Nick Sousanis. These assignments —  which (to give credit where it's due) are really their assignments — will get you to reckon what it means to think via the comics medium. Each one is a kind of thought experiment.

With What?

You'll need a few basic materials on hand, though you can of course get more (depending on your interest). As Ivan Brunetti says, the basic tools are paper, pencil, and life. But, to offer something a little more specific (borrowing from Sousanis here), here are some items I strongly recommend:

What Are the Projects?

#1: Doodle

2 pages (for the analysis only)
13 September 2016

Do Exercise 1.1 or Exercise 1.2 from Ivan Brunetti's Cartooning Philosophy and Practice. Please note: you are welcome to do (indeed, encouraged to do) drawings for both, but you need only turn in one set of drawings or the other set.

If you do 1.2, I have one modification to make. Instead of drawing 25 famous cartoon characters from memory, draw 7 famous cartoon characters from memory.

Part II of this assignment is a written analysis of what you've just done. This is not a class in how-to-draw cartoons. What I hope to achieve by this exercise (and the others) is greater understanding of how comics work, and you will convey what you understand via this two-page essay.

So, if you did 1.1, which one of your doodles was most successful at capturing the "essence of the thing being drawn" (to quote Brunetti)? I'm not asking which one looked most like it, but rather which captured some essential quality of the object it strives to represent. Which elements of the drawing made it successful? Did any of these elements surprise you? By way of conclusion, you might contrast this successful doodle with the one you consider the biggest failure. Why did it fail? You'll be turning in all doodles here, each one labelled neatly. However, please do not turn in a giant stack of paper. Instead, using a photocopier (or scanner), create smaller versions so that you can put all 6 versions of each object on a single page -- you might create a 2 X 3 grid for this purpose.

If you did 1.2, which one of your drawings did the best at capturing the "core" of that cartoon character? Why? Which particular elements of your drawing helped get the character's "essence" across so well? Did any of these elements surprise you? As in 1.1, it doesn't need to look most like the character, but rather to convey some essential aspect of the character. By way of conclusion, you might contrast this successful drawing with the least successful one: why didn't this other one work? What's missing? Does what you missed tell you anything about the way you "see" the character? As in 1.1, you'll turn in all examples here, but I'd prefer not to receive a stack of ten. If would shrink them (via photocopier or scanner) so that you can fit several per page, that would be much appreciated.

            Guidelines for writing an essay are below. If you have particular questions, please ask, of course. You can reach me via email.

#2: Sequence

3 pages (for the analysis only)
29 September 2016

Do Homework Assignment 1.2, exercise 2.3, and exercise 3.2 from Ivan Brunetti's Cartooning Philosophy and Practice. Take a photograph of your objects in their final order —  and refer to this photo (which you will also turn in) throughout your written analysis. If you want to include other photos of your process, you're welcome to do so, of course.

For the written analysis, address the questions Brunetti poses in 2.3 (What do these elements have in common? Which are the two weakest links and why?) and 3.2 (a longer list —  see his book).

Guidelines for writing an essay are below. If you have particular questions, don't be shy. You can reach me via email.

#3: Word & Image

2 pages (for the analysis only)
27 October 2016

Do Exercises 2.1 and 2.2 from Ivan Brunetti's Cartooning Philosophy and Practice.

For your analysis, which juxtaposition of image and text was funniest? Why? What other responses (in addition to laughter) did these elicit? Choose another image-text combination and discuss why it elicited the emotional responses that it did.

As in the first two, this will be accompanied by a written analysis of what you've just done. As before, what I hope to achieve by this exercise is greater understanding of how cartoons and comics work, and you will convey what you understand via this two-page essay.

Guidelines for writing an essay are below. If you have particular questions, do ask, won't you? You can reach me via email.

#4: Grids and Gestures

2 pages (for the analysis only)
15 November 2016

I borrow this assignment from Nick Sousanis, who describes it like this:

Take a single sheet of paper and carve it up to represent the shape of your day in grid-like fashion. The day one chooses to focus on can be that exact day, a typical day, a particularly eventful day, or some imagined day. Importantly, it is essential to use the entire sheet of paper – for empty space has great significance in comics. Then within this composition you have drawn, inhabit the spaces with gestural lines, collections of marks that run through it that represent your physical or emotional activity within and across those frames of time. Do your best not to draw things!

He suggests that you "orchestrate the shape of space to represent the experience of time in your day and run a gestural LINE (or lines) through it to represent your movement/emotion in those time FRAMES." As he says, the "idea is to create spatial time signatures – break up the time in space (a key aspect of how comics make meaning) and then inhabit that geometric time with gestural lines – representing the presence of the human in action/expression." Or, more succinctly, he writes, "represent the experience of your day through a series of geometric forms, and convey your activity through the action of a line cutting through the space."

You can read his entire assigment, "Grids and Gestures: A Comics Making Exercise" in Sequential Narrative Art in Education 2.1 —  click on "Download," just to the right of the title, to get the full pdf.

As in the first three, this is also accompanied by a written analysis of what you've just done.

           Guidelines for writing an essay are below. If you have questions about any of this, let me know. Send me an email.

#5: Annotation

2 pages (for the analysis only)
6 December 2016

For Paper #2, select a single page from one of the graphic novels we have read for the course, and annotate it.  What do you perceive at work on the page? How does the page work? Indeed, you might consider how the page contributes to the theme or themes you see at work locally on the page, and globally in the work as a whole. 

The selection of the page itself represents an important part of this assignment.  Choose a page which provides a rich source for you to interpret.  (If you are uncertain about whether a certain page would work, please ask me.)  Here are some possible items on which you might focus (but this by no means an exhaustive list

This is adapted from an earlier assignment of my own and from Nick Sousanis, who offers some examples of his students' annotations in this pdf.


Guidelines for writing an essay

Getting Started...

1. Read and Reread. Read and reread the work or works you've decided to write about, with a mind to the topic you have chosen. Take careful notes, making note of all relevant words, phrases, images, and (if applicable) illustrations.

Writing the Paper...

1. Formulate a thesis. Make sure your thesis is specific enough to be covered adequately in the space of your discussion. Remember: merely noting a difference, similarity, or theme does not constitute a thesis. A good thesis also answers the "So what?" question. Refer to the handout titled "Thesis vs. Topic."

2. Each paragraph should begin with a claim. Just as a thesis claim guides the paper as a whole, a paragraph's claim (often referred to as a "topic sentence") guides a paragraph. So, at or near the beginning of each paragraph, include a topic sentence that states your paragraph's central argument. The topic sentence serves as a bridge between thesis and paragraph by making an interpretive claim that indicates how the paragraph will support your thesis.

3. Provide support. To persuade your readers to your position, you will need to provide some evidence in support of your claims. Examples from the primary work should be used as evidence to prove your assertions. So, pay close attention to diction (word choice), artistic style, use of space, representational style (more iconic or more realistic), layout and design. Cite specific examples. If text, you should quote from it. If image, you should describe it — likely in your analysis of how it works....

4. Analysis and explanation of evidence. Be sure to analyze the example (quotation, style, layout, etc.) and discuss its significance. Explain for your reader how your evidence supports your claims.

5. Conclusion. Your last paragraph should synthesize, not summarize. You should resolve -- and not merely repeat -- your argument. Think of a conclusion this way: it both reminds your reader of where you've been and suggests new areas to explore.

And, after you finish your draft...

1. Revise and edit. Read your paper out loud to yourself. Often you will hear what your eyes will miss.

2. Grammar and structure are important. To help yourself proofread and revise with both of these ideas in mind, please see the handout titled "Keys to Structure and Style."

3. When in doubt, get help. My office hours are listed on the syllabus, and by appointment. My email address is Also, please make use of a grammar handbook. Two of the three handouts linked to this paper assignment are geared toward texts rather than comics, but they remind you to pay close attention to detail (in "Imagery and Figurative Language") and to your own language (in "Keys to Structure and Style"). The "Thesis vs. Topic" does use graphic novels for its examples, though it was designed for a longer paper than you're writing here. Still, its general model does apply.



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This page can't be © 2016 by Philip Nel because its ideas (excepting guidelines for writing an essay) all come from Ivan Brunetti & Nick Sousanis.
So, let's say it's © Ivan Brunetti (for the first three projects), Nick Sousanis (for the fourth & fifth) & Philip Nel (for the guidelines).
All rights reserved. Read the Disclaimer.

Last updated November 15, 2016 .