Eben Burgoon on helping kids make comics at 916 Ink

It's not unusual for a comics creator to visit a classroom, but the program that Eben Burgoon led for the Sacramento, California, nonprofit 916 Ink was much more than that: a six-week workshop in which elementary school students learned to write comics, then pitched their stories to professional artists who worked with them on the finished product. The workshop included a variety of exercises and techniques, including the "Marvel Method" — Burgoon gave the students pages of finished art and had them fill in the word balloons — and making up the backstory for a random LEGO Minifig.

916 Ink promotes literacy by encouraging young people to write their own stories and poems, and it has published more than 25 books of student work. Its comics program is new and was spurred by demand from both parents and students; the finished work, released this week, will be available in local comics shops, through the 916 Ink website, and eventually through other channels.

We spoke with Burgoon about what he did with the students, how they worked with the artists, and why he thinks comics are a good medium for a literacy program.

Robot 6: Writing comics is a very particular type of writing. Why do you think it is well suited to a literacy program such as this?

Eben Burgoon: I would say that many people share the experience of comic books or cartoon strips being one of their first real reading experiences. I know when I was their age I was reading Greek mythology, Tintin, some Batman and X-Men here and there. Definitely would jump to the funny pages of the newspaper and loved Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. I think that's a very common experience for a lot of people.

When you combine that with the 916 Ink's methods and using writing to teach literacy — it's a no-brainer to have a comic program. Many fiction writers will tell you that you have to read to be a better writer and if you know how to write well, you'll also read better and with a more critical eye.

We're still processing the pre- and post-class evaluations. Generally speaking, after the fiction focused 916 Ink workshops the data shows that kids are reading more and aren't afraid to express themselves with the written word. This program isn't simply offering comics up as the training wheels on the bike of reading. All of these kids in the class got hands-on experience with how comic books come to life, from idea to script — these kids all know what a letterist is. That a third-grader has any idea that lettering is an art in of itself is really cool to me, and I hope Richard Starking is smiling somewhere.

How did you first connect with your students? Was this offered as an after-school activity?

The program came into being through 916 Ink, a Sacramento nonprofit that has been transforming everyday kids into published authors through creative writing workshops after school. At the point when I joined the 916 Ink team, they were publishing their 25th book of youth writers. Katie McCleary, the executive director of 916 Ink, really was instrumental in getting me and my program off the ground and into the school to do the pilot program. Brett Stults, the education coordinator at 916 Ink, and I are huge comic book fans — we have a Batman altar in our office — and he certainly was super-supportive of this program and definitely gave me a lot of good advice about integrating fiction-focused prompts into comic book writing prompts. Using grant money from Golden One Credit Union, we offered 916 Ink Makes Comics as a free after school program to the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Capitol Heights Academy in Oak Park — this is a Title I school where 97 perfecnt of the kids are on free or reduced lunch programs. This is a really underserved area in Sacramento, but this charter school focuses their students to pursue college and education.

What was the process for the students? Did they create thumbnails as well as scripts? And how did LEGO come into it?

First and foremost, I wanted everybody on the same page. So the first thing we did was read comic books. Big Brother Comics here in Sacramento gave us a huge discount on a lot of comics. I let the kids take home a floppy comic at the end of class every session and read trade paperbacks in class. IDW Publishing donated a ton of youth comics to the program.

After that week, I used Scott McCloud's and Will Eisner's books to really help break down the anatomy of comics to the kids -- get them focused on choice of moment to drive the scripts. We reverse-engineered finished comic book pages. So each kid got a different finished pages and then had to write what they saw panel by panel, describing the action. After a couple weeks of writing prompts in the 916 Ink methods, I started giving them scripts of my own work paired with the finished pages, Jim Zub and a few others donated pages and scripts so that I could really show them how scripts inform the artists. We did the "Marvel Method," where I gave them finished pages of comics with blank dialogue balloons to help them get a grasp on writing dialogue that fits with action. Hilarious results.

We even had an artist day where about a dozen of our artists came in just to talk about what they like and dislike. Like a comic-con panel, where the students could ask them direct questions and then after we all played "telephone Pictionary." The artists drew the pictures and the kids had to interpret what they'd drawn, write it down in a sentence and the next artist had to draw that. It was a really awesome day for both the kids and the artists.

The LEGO day was really cool, too. I got permission to buy a box of unopened LEGO Minifigs -- the ones that are full of random characters. Each student got a character, built it, and then we wrote origin stories about the figure. I think a couple of the final stories in the book arose out of that experience and writing prompt.

Most everybody in the class did some sort of thumbnail or page layout. A lot of them are really cool — I only have a couple saved from the experience because just about everybody kept their journals. They were certainly encouraged to practice drawing their characters and use that to communicate their ideas to the artist's when it came time to pitch.

What was it like when they pitched to the artists? How did that work?

That was a magic day. By the final week of class, most of the students had a working script. Every student was told at the beginning that they'd each have one page — but that they could team together to tell longer stories. I coached each group on distilling their story idea down to one or two sentences — basically each one of them, if they ran into Eric Stephenson or Stan Lee in an elevator, could tell them their idea for a new comic super-quick. On pitch day, the groups or single student stood in the front of class, the artists all sat in the tiny desks and listened to each pitch and took notes about who they'd like to work with.

After they pitched, the kids met with their artist they were going to work with and they collaborated for a while before they went to our "editor" — this is one of my personal favorite things that 916 Ink does, but we put a little twist on it for the comic program. 916 Ink has a character that's called Mastah Complaina, he or she comes from the Republic of Meh ... and isn't interested in popular culture and has no use for it. It's sort of the way 916 Ink cuts down on Pokemon stories and fan-fiction, challenges the kids to use their own creative spirit and not somebody else's. Our "Publisher" would meet with the artist and the writers and hand them a publishing contract to take home to their parents if their story was original and fit with the book.

It was a really special day. Lot of fun. I'll remember that for the rest of my life.

Once a student or group of students was paired with an artist, how did they proceed?

Well, on the last day of class I had been threatening the kids with dill pickles as the last day of class party snack. On the last day, if you didn't get me a useable and formatted script complete with character descriptions, you got a pickle. If you did, you got a cupcake. Everybody got cupcakes. (The jar of pickles was also devoured — hey, free snack.) But at that point, that was my last day of access with the students. After I transcribed all the students' handwritten scripts, I gave them to the artists, and they went to work. They had a lot of creative license as most of them had worked with the students on pitch day and didn't have many questions about the scripts.

How did you find the artists?

I'm a comic book writer. In this business, you've got to know artists if you're a writer. In Sacramento, I really have been active in the comic book community trying to build up our comic book scene. Last year, I organized a comic book convention with the Crocker Art Museum here in Sacramento, and we had dozens of artists come out and show the fine-art patrons of the Crocker how awesome the world of comic books are and many of them had no idea of the talent and skill of our community. I really wanted the event to be a bridge between fine art and pop art and have people understand that the commonality between the two is the level of passion and skill is usually the same — we're really not that different.

So basically, I approached the artists I knew in the community. Let them know that they can use it as a paid opportunity or donate their time — just about everybody did a combination of pay and donation. We have artists that are at all different stages of their career. Timothy Green II works for Marvel and DC, and he did the cover. Several of our artists are professional independents on the heels of their successful Kickstarters, and others were like Julie Okahara and Asia Baltzley — that was their first ever experience with sequential comic art, and they were amazing!

The division of EA Games here in Sacramento even donated two of their concept artists to us for the program. This was a super community-focused and most of the created work was Sacramento-rooted. I think only two contributors to the book do not live in Sacramento.

What is the distribution of the finished product — will it just go to the class? Will it be available for sale?

I have a lot of good ins with the top shops in the Sacramento area — they'll definitely be stocking the book. Each kid gets two copies for themselves, artists get two personal copies. It'll also be available on 916 Ink's website alongside their other books. I'll be submitting it to comiXology, too.

At the moment though, it'll mostly be akin to a self-published book. However, we're optimistic that Diamond will stock and distribute the book. It may not hit that network for a month or two though. Any store that really wants the book can write to me and I'll happily work with them to get them the book.

I have seen lots of articles about comics classes in schools, but a six-week workshop seems like a big commitment. What do you see as the benefit of a longer-format project like this?

It was a blur for me and the kids. We were having a blast, and I think really the take-away was that they are probably going to all be life-long comic fans and start reading and creating more. Having more time, and I honestly wish I'd had more time, means those kernels of knowledge can make deeper, lasting roots and keep these kids inspired for a long time. As far as I know, this program is unique and the only one that comes from a writing-first perspective where the kids create something, pass the work to professionals, and at the end, have a comic book that visually is just as good as anything on the market right now and has all the charm that you'd expect of a book written by third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. It's truly a remarkable and amazing book — and I can't wait to do another one in Fall.

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