Monday, November 3, 2014

Scoutin' at the Schulz

(that post title is sung to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz"....)

I had a good day teaching a three-hour workshop for Girl Scouts earning their Comic Artist badges at the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center on Saturday. My wife Karen, who stayed involved in Girl Scouts after she led our daughters' troop for 12 years, came along as my invaluable girl wrangler. The 25 workshoppers were Cadettes in sixth through eighth grades, some of whom had traveled a couple of hours to be there.

(Two "By the Ways": As I was reminded and will explain, there's a big difference between girls in the sixth and eighth grades. Also, the Girl Scout national organization's website is so chaotic that just now I couldn't find the answer to a basic question like "how old are Cadette Girl Scouts?" and had to look it up on Wikipedia instead.)

To earn the badge, Scouts must complete five tasks:
1. Delve into the world of comics
2. Choose a story to tell
3. Draw it out
4. Frame it in four panels
5. Add the words.

To that list I added a Number 6: Have a snack break.

The first thing I told the Scouts is that the Badge Authorities had gotten it wrong and I was going to teach them the right way to make comics. You don't "add the words" after you "draw it out": the words go first.

One way the Scouts could satisfy Task 1 was visiting with a comic artist. Since they were talking to me, that may have sufficed. However, I also gave them a quick survey of the history of comics, from Ben Franklin's "Join or Die" through 19th Century newspapers to 1938 Superman to 1960s Underground to graphic novels in the 2000s (with an obvious nod to a half century of Schulz).

And tied it all together with a neat bow on top.

I taught them the terminology for the parts of a comic: panel, balloon, border, gutter, etc. We talked about expressions, and how beginning with a basic face--two eyes and a nose--and just adding eyebrows and a mouth in different shapes and positions can communicate a wide variety of emotions. I had the Scouts do that themselves: I provided a blank face and they tried out different expressions. Throughout the day, I shared the results of willing Scouts with the rest of the group via the camera in my notebook computer.

Trying out some expressions, communicating some emotions.
How we shared: I'm holding this Scout's work in front of
my laptop's camera while she tells her story on the monitor.

I taught them to make comics the traditional way, sketching in pencil first then going over it in ink, but I also explained that that method developed during the early days of newspaper print and wasn't really necessary for the Web or modern media. If they want to make comics with paint or collage, more power to them. However, I specifically stuck with black-and-white pencil-and-ink for two reasons: it's the simplest, and after the workshop they could tour the Schulz Museum and see that Mr. Schulz made his comics the exact same way they had.

Pencil, then ink. The words go first.

One exercise I call "And then what happened?" I draw a man walking along a street and ask the Scouts, "and then what happened?" This usually gets an enthusiastic response. I draw whatever they tell me. "A rock fell on his head!" "He looked up and saw a dump truck full of rocks above him!" "He woke up and it was all a dream but he still had a lump on his head!"

Another exercise I stole from my friend Mita Mahato, who gave a workshop on zine-making at the latest Graphic Medicine conference I attended. First, we origamied a sheet of paper into an eight-page booklet. Then we did a jam comic, where one person starts a story based on my prompt, then passes it to her right for the next person to draw the next page, and so on until all the pages are full. It's an improvisational "And then what happened?" exercise meant to be quick and sloppy. It worked wonderfully.

A couple of Scouts working on their jam comics. You can also see that I brought along some age-appropriate comics for them to read as examples of the form, including a new series called "Lumberjanes" and my friend Otis Frampton's "Oddly Normal."

Finally, they had to apply everything we'd talked about by writing and drawing their own four-panel comics, which volunteers shared with the group (as they had their jam comics). I found features to point out and compliment in all of them. They made some good comics! Mission accomplished!

That's also when I was sharply reminded of the difference between the sixth and eighth grades. In particular, there was a little group of older girls whose stories all involved characters flirting and making out, and one whose four-panel comic ended with a decapitation. As they shared their stories with the group, I expressed mild mock dismay--"Oh, I hope this story isn't going where I think it's going. OH NO!"--keeping in mind there were also 10-year-olds in the room and, by the way, I'm sort of representing the clean-cut Schulz Museum. I wasn't trying to smother anybody's creativity, but at the same time wanted to keep it G-rated.

Well, those girls got their revenge. Reading through the workshop evaluations later, I received four in a row that rated their instructor as "poor" and said the museum needed to hire somebody less "sexist" who realized Girl Scouts could create stories about romance and death, too.


I want to be liked as much as anybody, and that stung a little. I actually took a moment for self-reflection: was I sexist? My wife didn't think so. "That's just how they are at that age," said Karen. I think I'd've reacted the same if they'd all been boys. If any of them had said anything during the workshop, I'd have encouraged them to tell any type of story they wanted to later, and let their freak flags fly. That's what comics are about (a point I'd made when discussing Underground Comics)! Just not on my time.

Those mean girls won't get me down! *sniff*

And they didn't.

Many thanks to the Schulz Museum for asking me to do the workshop, especially Education Director Jessica Ruskin. Thanks to the two troop moms who stayed and were a big help, and especially thanks to all the Scouts, who were really terrific and fun to work with, even the mean girls in the corner. I'm supposed to teach another Cadette workshop in December, which I hope Jessica lets me do despite my bad reviews.

Afterward, some of the troops asked to pose for photos with me and their completed comics (faces are blurred because I didn't get permission to show them). I love that Schulz quote on the wall of the museum's Education Room and will take any opportunity to pose under it.

1 comment:

R said...

I agree with Mom! Knowing how strict GS can be about that sort of thing, I don't think it's sexist at all to try and maintain an age-appropriate environment at a scouting event, especially if there are younger girls there. We would have had to do it if they wrote/drew something like that during a camp activity, etc. Though it is a bit interesting that the girls reacted that way...