Using a Graphic Illustrator in Higher Education: Comic Life

A few years ago, I taught a writing course—a first-year seminar—on the graphic novel.  We read Art Spiegelman’s, The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale; Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s, V for Vendetta; Charles Burns’, Black Hole; and Percy Carey’s, Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm.  Students wrote some typical first-year composition essays on topics of their choosing (related to the course texts).  Additionally, throughout the term, we discussed the meanings behind the rhetorical conventions of the graphic novel:  why did the author choose to use three frames in this scene instead of the typical two he used throughout his novel?  Why is one page in black and white and all the others in color?  What does the font shift mean in this section of the text?  How do these conventions relate to the novel, to the message of the novel, to the artist?  We talked about image placement and manipulation, colors, fonts, styles, language.  And of course, all of this related to writing.

Talking about how writers and illustrators created these graphic novels was fine.  When students created their own graphic novels, and had to make choices about colors, fonts, sizes, layouts, and language, however, they understood the abstract concepts much more clearly.

For their end-of-semester projects, after reading five disparate graphic novels, introductory material by Scott McCloud, and related scholarship about the graphic novel genre, students created their own graphic novels.  They used traditional literary texts that they translated into a graphic novel form, or they could use their own stories, again translated into an 8-10 page graphic novella.

The process was much easier than it might first sound.  Students used Comic Life, a graphic novel program and their own imaginations.  Comic Life is a rich program that offers an easy-to-use interface that integrates with images (those you might find on Flickr, for example, or images you take yourself) and many types of image files.  Comic Life includes photographic filters (making image-editing software largely unnecessary), it uses a variety of font sizes and types, it has dozens of premade templates, and it’s very easy to use.

The quality and the creativity in the novellas that students produced were simply amazing.  I am unable– because of space limitations– to produce an entire graphic novella in this post.  I can, however, display a few pages of a student-produced text.  (The student has provided permission to display the work.)  This particular student told a translated version of a scene in Hamlet.

Comic Life has a 30-day free trial download, but at about $30, Comic Life Deluxe is worth spending the money to own the program.  (When I had students create their own graphic novellas, they used the free-trial download version.  Several of them liked the program so much that they purchased their own copies.)

Comic Life is available in many downloadable formats:

For the Mac:

  • Comic Life
  • Comic Life 2 (Comic Life 2 is a recently-released upgrade that is more robust than the original program.)

For the PC:

For portable devices:

  • Comic Touch is the iPhone and iPod touch version costs $2.99.
  • Comic Touch Lite is also available as a free app.
  • Plasq has recently announced that Comic Life for the iPad will soon be released.

Comic Life allowed students to create their own texts and be as creative (or not) as they wished.  They used their own writing and images, but they were able to make use of the rhetorical principles they’d learned in the course.

This kind of software has many, many uses in education.  Plasq, the creator of Comic Life, offers an “education” forum where educators can share their experiences and student-produced products.  While the Plasq forums are geared for K-12 educators, those in higher education can also find uses for these useful and inexpensive programs.

How about you?  Have you used Comic Life or any other graphic illustrator program in your courses? How has the program worked for you?  How have your students responded?  What other uses have you found for these types of programs?  If you have other (similar) programs that you’d like to see us review, please leave suggestions and other comments below.

[Images used with permission from original author and are Creative Commons licensed.]

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