Getting Graphic: A Lecture on Comic Book Writing

By Ruth Guerrero

As an 18-year-old attending film school at NYU, Keith McCleary never thought that one day he’d make his living teaching classes on comic book writing. But last Thursday, he did just that, blessing comic book enthusiasts at UCI with the fundamentals of comic book narratives.

UCI’s Campus Writing Center, along with Campus Writing Coordinator Jonathan Alexander and Graduate Writing Fellow Jasmine Lee, hosted “Getting Graphic with Keith McCleary,” a hands-on comic book writing workshop that taught students from a myriad of majors improvisational writing, flash fiction, script-making and even some drawing.

Most of the students who attended this workshop were part of the School of Humanities. However, it also brought along Alyssa Sheffler, a second year computer science major.

“I actually draw in my spare time,” Sheffler explained. “I used to do comics. I wish I had continued.” But with only three university programs in the entire country that teach classes on comics and comic book writing, aficionados like Sheffler are forced to indulge in it solely as a hobby.

McCleary, however, explained why this art is so vital saying, “In the world that we live in you need to know about graphic design, creative writing — it’s multimodal learning.”

Multimodality, according to Gunther Kress, professor of Education at the University of London, means using different modes or approaches to learning a particular topic. It strengthens the learning process and the skill — and multimodal activities were certainly practiced at this workshop.

McCleary shared his first attempt at taking his comic book writing to a digital level. He downloaded the software program “Poser” and taught himself how to use it from scratch, making mistakes, toying with the tools and features, and tweaking the appearance of the 3D animated human figure. McCleary joked, “Me and this naked dude got to know each other for many months.” But the most complex experience about teaching himself how to use Poser was a single comic book panel in one of his stories that took four days to create.

“That was a dark week for me,” McCleary said.

After his engaging lecture, students were asked by the New York native and current UCSD professor of composition, multimedia and comics, to create “flash fiction,” an extremely brief fictional story on a blank piece of paper.

“It doesn’t matter what you write about, just start writing, ’cause at a certain point you just have to push,” McCleary told the audience.

He encouraged confused students to squeeze the creativity right out of them. Attendees looked around nervously and began to write creative flash fiction. Some chose to write about elements such as rain and fire, others about love affairs with their beds, and some about their pet dogs.

Their narratives were then distributed to a second student to create a script, much like a movie or TV-show script, right before being passed to a third student to create a visual of the story handed to them. The drawings were based on the scripts previously created, so the original designer’s ideas no longer were the basis for the narrative. “Pugs” were confused for “pigs,” tragedies were turned into comedies, and a love affair with a bed turned into a nervous breakdown on top of Spongebob Squarepants’s bedsheets.

The original students received their tales in return only to have their art be either completely reconstructed or enhanced. Still, chuckles were heard around the room and attendees grasped the magic of multimodal learning, comic book writing, and most importantly the understanding that something, anything, can be produced by the willingness to “just push.”