Writing Comics About Middle Schoolers; Teaching Elementary and High Schoolers

The last few weeks have been focused on drawing as many comics pages as I can, and getting started with my teaching jobs. I’m now two sessions into my after school class at Creative Science School. It’s a bit of a challenge having a mixed group age-wise–the students range from 3rd through 8th grade–and since the class meets after school the kids are sometimes either really high energy or really low energy. I find it tricky to determine that balance between after school fun time and structured learning time. But overall it’s been really fun hanging out with the group and I’m looking forward to the rest of the sessions, which will continue until mid December. So far we’ve done some jam comics–collaborative comics where one kid draws a panel, that kid passes it along and another kid draws the next panel, and so on–and basic figure drawing lessons. Here are some of the comics:




As you can see, these jam comics were an opportunity for me to re-learn the valuable lesson that if you don’t explicitly say “keep it school appropriate,” the id will take over. We had a conversation about that later on. But I admit, I did laugh at these.

Last week I got to observe the sophomore English class at Cleveland High School where I will be teaching comics through Writers In The Schools. This residency will last for ten sessions over the course of three months, and will end with a reading of student work that is open to the public. The students in this class are just finishing up reading “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, so I think that this puts them in a good place to start making their own comics. My first day is this coming Monday, November 3rd, and this week I’m finishing up my lesson plan for the residency. Of course I’m nervous, but also excited…especially about the scheme I have to get the kids to draw a comic based on a funny cat video on the first day. More on that in the next post…

Since the end of the summer, my own comics work has been focused on a story called “Middle,” which I mentioned towards the end of my last blog post. I first got the idea for “Middle” about three years ago, when I was working on a story idea for the first issue of the comics anthology “The Strumpet”. The theme of that issue was “dressing up,” and although I ultimately decided on a story about a monster who dresses up as a cat so that he can experience kitty cat night life…


…during my process of brainstorming I was also reminded of my first experiences buying and wearing make-up as a sixth grader. The details were murky in my mind, but I had a recollection of a sleep over with my old best friend. I’ll call her “Daphne.” (Because I like that name.) During the day we bought nail polish and eye liner at the drug store, talked about the crushes we had, hung out at her house, and wandered around the strip mall clusters at the center of town. In the evening we put on the previously purchased eye liner and the nail polish and went to a dance–or some kind of event–at a community center. I remembered being there, meeting other kids Daphne knew who didn’t go to our school, hearing bland alt-rock hits of the day (the day in question being late 1995), but strangely I don’t remember any dancing. Maybe we were just there to hang out? Realistically this was probably a bunch of memory snippets that happened over the course of more time than just the two days that make up a sleep over. Regardless, they painted a rich picture of a very specific point in my life: sixth grade.

For visual reference, here I am at age 11, in my class picture:


As you can see my bangs were mostly grown out, however I preferred keeping them in front of my ears like that. It was my look.

Sixth grade was kind of a magic time for me. I’d had close friends before but by sixth grade I felt that deepening of friendship that comes with greater emotional maturity. I remember thinking that Daphne and I really understood each other in a special way–empathy was enriching my relationships and making them feel urgent, important. I began to think I had something akin to a personal style going on in terms of both my look and my tastes. I’d always loved drawing but at this time I recall thinking that my style was really improving–in fact, Daphne collected all my notebook doodles throughout sixth grade and pasted them into a composition book for me, which she gave me as a gift at the end of the year. I loved The Beatles, AND I got into them before that “Anthology” thing came out so I was sort of a trendsetter. I saw growing out those bangs as a sophisticated move. I wore super baggy sweaters and baggy khakis and ripped jeans and Converse, and even though all my peers were starting to dress in a more traditionally feminine way, I never got teased for how I dressed. Oh, and I had a boyfriend! My first boyfriend. We were awkward, but sweet, I think.

Eventually seventh grade would come along and everything would start to suck. I’d grow apart from nearly all my close friends, I’d feel awkward and insecure and weird most of the time, I’d start to question my sexual orientation and get real angsty about it, and I’d cultivate a style of dress that could best be described as “Lilith Fair goth.” In sixth grade, however, I was feeling the excitement and independence of being older than a kid–and the promise of getting older in general–but I hadn’t hit the pain of adolescence yet.

As I reflected on this point in time, I remembered how much time I’d spent with Daphne talking about this boyfriend. I remembered exciting it was to see him outside school, the few times we actually hung out. We were each other’s first kiss, and that happened in sixth grade too. But I also remembered how dating felt terrifying. And how even though I felt so close to Daphne, towards the end of the school year I could begin to sense that we were about to be less close. I remembered the pressure of the social structure, which would only get worse during seventh grade. And I remembered the slight terror beneath that promise of getting older–what if I didn’t become the person I wanted to be? Turns out sixth grade had a sinister undercurrent to it, I guess.

When I realized how meaningful my feelings about this time were, I decided I wanted to make a comic that captured them–this became “Middle.” First, I came up with the main characters/alter egos. I became Rachel, and Daphne became Allison. After a lot of written brainstorming, I decided this comic would follow the events of that initial sleepover, but with some other memories thrown in. Without giving too much away: the two girls spend a day getting ready to go to a dance, and at this dance the reader–and at least one of the characters–realize that these two are not going to be close for much longer.

I’ll spend more time here at the blog writing about my process of creating “Middle,” which is the longest story I’ve done so far, and the one where I’ve challenged myself the most. For now, here are some of the earlier character designs for Rachel and Allison:



Eventually, I decided to swap the hair color on Rachel and Allison:



And as you can see, those grown-out bangs live on.

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