Comics in the Classroom Part 4: How to Draw a Comic

So last time I rashly promised to turn you all into comic-book Leonardos. Well - here, in quick and punchy blog-post format, are my top tips for adults who want to draw comics, but are not sure where to start. They will also apply pretty well to adults who want to pass on some help and support to kids who are drawing comics, but don't know where to start with that either. 

Tip 1: Don't worry about it!

This might sound like nonsense, since I've just been telling you I can make you into Leonardo, but it's actually the most important lesson I've learned while drawing comics. You can't make your drawings better by being tentative. Kids, and people or all ages, really, respond to confident, definitive marks. Remember, you don't need to make perfect or even good drawings - they just need to serve a communication purpose. Plus, it's really nice to watch people drawing. I do a lot of live drawing in front of audiences, and I've gotten a great response to drawings I would've wanted to burn, if I was just drawing for myself. But that's the point: if you're drawing for an audience of kids, you're not drawing for yourself.


Tip 2: Check your speech bubbles!

Speech bubbles are very important for comics, and kids (and adults) tend to make the same simple mistakes with them. Most importantly, write the words first! I see this all the time! Kids will often draw a balloon and then try to cram the words in afterwards. Just this one tip will make a huge difference to the legibility of the work. Plus, thinking about the sequence of work steps here may help the writer think about breaking down other tasks elsewhere.

A short comic strip about speech bubbles by Adam Murphy

Also, don't forget that different shapes of speech bubble denote different types of speech:

A short comic strip about different types of speech and thought bubbles by Adam Murphy

Tip 3: Vary the Framing of Shots

I tend to think about close, mid- and wide shots. Don't just choose randomly for "interest". Think about why you might want to use a close-up to show an important facial expression or other detail, for example, or a mid-shot to show the relation of two characters, or a wide shot to set a character in a specific place.

A short comic strip about framing by Adam Murphy, with different types of shots in including close-ups and mid shots

Tip 4: Use the Grid

This is a controversial one (at least as controversial as comics theory gets!). Many comics artists like to use dynamic page layouts with variable panel sizes for drama and emphasis. Which is fine when it's done well, but rubbish when its done badly, and very hard to manage when you're starting out (or even quite experienced...). I am a big fan of the fixed grid - for simple classroom exercises I always recommend the 2x2 grid. It's long enough to do an actual little story but short enough to get it done in one session. 

A four panel blank grid for drawing a comic

The other great advantage of the grid is that it forces you to really think about choice of moment. What exact drawings do you need to communicate a specific idea? Can this character's entrance be done in the same panel as this bit of conversation, or does it need its own drawing? Do we need to see this guy dying or is it implicit in the funeral scene? Etc etc. I kept a daily diary journal comic using the 2x2 grid for many years - this is a really useful exercise for picking the key moments from the unbroken stream of experience.

A four panel grid, filled with illustrations of Adam Murphy thinking really hard

Tip 5: Talk and Listen

I do a lot of workshops with kids, and I often think the most important part is speaking to kids about their drawings. Some kids get very stuck and can't think of an idea; usually they are worried about not having a "good enough" idea. I try to model coming up with ideas. I'll just reel off the first things I think of (trying to guess what might catch their interest). I'll explain that I'm not trying to have a brilliant, perfect idea, I'm just trying things out until I find something I like. Usually they'll either like one of my suggestions, or they'll be able to try the technique for themselves to generate something they do like.

I'll get kids to read and explain their story to me (this also helps if the comic isn't the clearest) and tell me what's going to happen next, if they know. This is also a great exercise at the end of a comic session - kids often really enjoy telling their story, especially if you make it clear they have to do the voices and sound effects - it can be a great public speaking exercise. 

Of course there is a limit to what I can share with you in this quick post. Drawing takes a lifetime's worth of practice and dedication, just like any skill - there's really no getting around that! But I truly believe that anyone can make a fun comic that's worth sharing. It's ok to be a bit rubbish - something I tell myself every day! I, and you, still deserve to make art. It's not something we need someone else's approval for, it's a basic human right. And maybe by showing that we have the right to make art, no matter how good or rubbish we are, we can give some kids that right as well.

You can read the other instalments of Adam's blog series on comics and literacy here. Adam has also written a blog on the basics of comic creation - check it out!

Check out our graphic novel book lists for a wide range of recommendations for all ages.

Have a look at our fabulous resource about comic writing, which takes you step by step through the process of adapting a scene from a novel into a comic.

Top image by Jo Cotterill.


Adam Murphy

Adam Murphy is a Glasgow-based comics artist. A regular contributor to The Phoenix weekly comics magazine, he is the creator of Corpse Talk, the comic-book chat show in which he interviews the dead famous from history, and Lost Tales in which he re-discovers and re-interprets forgotten folktales from around the world. Corpse Talk Season 1 and Season 2, and Lost Tales are published by David Fickling Books.