No laughing matter

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Comic art needs to be taken seriously, especially because pupils find it much more stimulating than high art, says Wanda Opalinska.

Why is comic art rarely taught in schools? For many pupils, the discovery that two circles with dots in them can be transformed into the cartoon cat Garfield's eyes is confirmation that they can draw. This realisation can lead to a consuming interest in drawing, as the back covers of many school exercise books testify.

At Danum School Technology College in Doncaster a visit by comic artist Kev F Sutherland shows what can be achieved when students are taught comic art techniques and tricks of the trade. The visit, funded by Doncaster LEA, mixes Kev, a regular contributor to The Beano, 2000 AD, Viz and the Funday Times section of The Sunday Times, with 10 students of all abilities from Years 7 to 11.

After a quick introduction to the comic as art, he asks pupils to observe the shapes of faces, eyes and noses ("draw two tadpoles swimming away from each other"). After examining how comic artists exaggerate their observations, students shape their own comic characters with individual tuition from Kev. To pupils who say they can't draw, Kev tells them "draw Dennis the Menace. You have to draw him wrong, he's got an eyebrow like a Gallagher brother".

Moving on to building a story, Kev explores creating impact and sustaining suspense over three or more frames in a comic strip, looking at how 2000 AD's Judge Dredd is built up. Thought has to be conveyed visually, using music notation to show song or filling a frame with a single pair of eyes to show reaction. "You're making a movie but with a pen and paper," as Kev puts it.

One Year 11 pupil says he used to think art was pointless, but "today I'm learning to draw and learning how I can improve".

The students eagerly absorb instructions on drawing the human body using stick men and "sausages and eggs" to build curves. The room hums with enjoyment as the class work on their own comic strips.

As Jo York, art adviser to North Yorkshire LEA says, "comic artists demonstrate the same skills you'd expect to find in a fine art class - draughtsmanship, colour balance and composition."

Yet a bias against comic art does exist in some art departments. Teachers with a fine-art training may dismiss the genre (despite most comic artists having studied fine art at art school). The battle for curriculum time doesn't help: fine art values appear more deserving, but students don't share these views. As one pupil says: "Just because it's a cartoon, doesn't mean it's not proper drawing."

Jane Sellars, curator of a recent Judge Dredd exhibition at Harrogate's Mercer Art Gallery, finds that comic art can inspire students: "They see how it's done and move their own work on as a result."

Nevertheless, according to Anita O'Connor, curator of the Cartoon Art Trust, "Comic art is not regarded as 'proper art'."

Modern artists such as British cartoonist Phil May have never been valued in the same way as 18th-century artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, who also produced cartoons and caricatures. Above all, for students, comic art probably has a greater impact than, say, John Constable's "The Haywain".

As one Danum pupil puts it: "Why do I have to draw a landscape for someone to say it's art?"

contacts and resources

BYLINE:Kev F Sutherland's Comic Art Masterclasses PO Box 48, Clevedon, Bristol BS21 7LQ

Tel: 01275 872111


The Cartoon Art Trust runs comic art and cartooning masterclasses for children throughout the year, as well as the Young Cartoonist of the Year competition. 7 The Brunswick Centre, Bernard Street, London WC1N 1AF

Tel: 020 7278 7172


Cartoonist and teacher Steve Marchant has written a beginner's guide to comic art, The Cartoonist's Workshop, which will be published next May. An online database of UK cartoonists working in education, Cartoon Classroom, is also planned.

Cartooning the Head and Figure

By Jack HammTime Warner pound;6.45

How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way

By Stan Lee and John Buscema

Titan Books pound;10.99

How to Draw Manga: Compiling Characters

By the Society for the Study of Manga Technique

Japan Publications pound;9.01

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