A book or story may be about a boxer’s return to the ring, or a pig with a heart of gold who wanders into the wilderness, or a or a chopper pilot’s biggest adventure , but hopefully what these stories are really about are their themes.

Craig Thompson’s Goodbye, Chunky Rice is a graphic novel about a morose turtle leaving town. It’s the story of him and his companion mouse and the other characters he’s leaving behind, but the book as a whole is about LOSS; it’s about leaving one’s friends and family and about the many separations we experience in life.

Thompson smartly created secondary characters and situations which would help him explore these themes: A hobo with a sad history full of separation from the animals of his childhood, now attached to a stray bird he keeps in his apartment; A pair of siamese twins who can’t separate; a ship’s captain (brother to the hobo; they are essentially estranged) who claims his “only friend is the sea.” Even the book design is about loss, where the inside cover, indicia image and author photo all have little bits taken out from them. These slices coalesce later in an acknowledgements page at the back.

Thompson knew his themes, and foraged his way to resonant images and ideas that helped him explore those themes: what kinds of loss can we experience? What happens when we can’t get free? How does separation echo through the years of a person’s life? It’s a very powerful book as a result of being about human themes.

In the class I teach with cartoonists Matt Madden and Jessica Abel, we discuss our different strategies for creating our work. Jessica traditionally works from character. She envisions a character and develops a plot from there, via processes much like those in this book. Matt tends to work from form. He looks at categories of rhythm and structure he hasn’t created in yet and creates characters and plots that relate to those forms.

I discuss in this class how I have worked mostly from THEME. This is especially true when I already knew I was using my Hutch Owen continuing character. From a starting point of him and attendent continuing characters, themes would appear to me from the outside world that I would want to explore.

A quick list of Hutch Owen stories I’ve created and the themes or questions that prompted them:
THE ROAD TO SELF: How do our ideals change or not change over time? What affects these changes?
ARISTOTLE: What is freedom and creativity? How does this character misunderstand these issues?
EMERGING MARKETS: How have we colonized other cultures through commerce and religion?

Mind you, some of these stories were also excuses to draw people with sticks and bats pounding on a guy dressed up as a goat. But first came the idea to explore: the theme, the question. Then came the ideas and images. Hopefully by then, the characters and stories begin to develop organically to become their own interesting narrative entities.


When you know your themes, you can systematize your aggregating, your assembling.

For instance, for every image that pops up, ask yourself three guiding questions. Let’s say you know one of the themes you’re exploring is jealousy. Let’s say you’ve got a character.

Systematize your next steps. For any idea or image that arises, you can ask yourself three (always a good number) questions:
1 What was our character jealous of to put him in this situation?
2 Who could be jealous of this particular image?
3 What is our character jealous of at exactly this moment?

Now an image pops up, say, of Benny relaxing poolside on a very very cloudy day.

Answering these questions will help your daydreaming be focused. Three possible answers to the above questions:

1. What was our character jealous of to put him in this situation? Our character, living presently in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, got a call from a friend in Hawaii. Pissed off and jealous, he found a pool and was determined to have a good time, despite it being dreary out. Add drizzling.
2. Who could be jealous of this particular image? Our character has a brother or sister who thinks he’s got it all easy. She lives in Canada and it’s February. Our character, while a bit cold maybe, is at least outside and relaxing. His sister is shoveling snow. Benny is texting her.
3. What is our character jealous of at exactly this moment? Our character could be jealous of someone in the scene. Maybe it’s not visible here, but he’s spying on his object of affection and her new boyfriend. Or his wife and her lover. His next step- hire some muscle.

EXERCISE - Guiding your themes

1. Figure out the themes of your work, and list three questions you should ask yourself each time an image appears. Make sure you explore both sides of the theme- the positive and negative poles if that applies, or at least try to imagine opposite situations. These opposites, at least in our beginning assembling and daydreaming can help us keep the work dynamic. We need only keep in that which feels right to your editorial mind.

2. In exercise 10 (coming soon!) we wrote 4 story ideas and then 10 sentences. Did you notice any trends? 2 of mine were about disease, 2 more featured colors.

Maybe what is emerging is a sort of seseme street affinity (obsession) with cookies or trash, or sudoku or linen or artichokes. Keep going. Honor those repeat surprises . Write down 5 more, stay focused on whatever themes and motifs emerged in your list but this time, begin with those themes and... Suddenly you’re dreaming while you’re awake. You’re creating a language of story and character to explore themes that are meaningful to you.


I tell some students to dream big, write big, and if necessary, to tone it down later. I learned this from my days not writing plot at all.

The large or extreme gesture is always more visible and is a great way to learn to craft stories. And it may the right expression of your character’s story.

Samuel Beckett found crystal clear expressions for his ideas: a woman up to her head in dirt and detritus, not noticing her misery, a servant and master in a locked tower, neither character nor environment ever changing, two fools waiting for nothing. Was this exaggeration or clarity? Maybe they’re not that dissimilar.

EXERCISE - Exaggeration

Take the “distraction” from exercise 1 and turn it into a major calamity. “I need coffee” becomes an entire country or continent deprived of beans. “When does the new Spiderman movie come out?” Becomes “President Spider-man is locked in the Oval Office again and won’t come out.” Ridiculous yes, bigger than your original ideas, and maybe it will point you towards something toned down and perfect. Maybe you’ll find your story focusing on the Oval Office, the larger exaggerated idea falling away like scaffolding. Or maybe it’s perfect, giant-sized as it is.

ELBOW: From Writing Without Teachers
If a poem or story has no focus, try giving it an exaggerated one.



I love art, I love being thrilled by art, and I love folding these thrills into my own practice. I love stealing.

I recall some of my favorite “combinations” or outright thefts that I’ve heard:

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top calling up Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, asking him how he gets his guitar sound. Knopfler won’t tell him, so Gibbons makes his best guess and sells millions of copies of ELIMINATOR, the album using that sound.

The Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Kurt Cobain’s attempt to mimic the guitar riff in Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, which in turn was Tom Scholz’s attempt to write a song like the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee.” All three of these songs are on the Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Rock Songs of All Time. (“More than a Feeling” squeaking in at 500)

The history of painting and fine art is full of examples. From the almost wholesale theft of Japanese printmaking techniques by French artists of the at the turn of the 20th century to Francis Bacon’s direct inspiration from Rembrandt and Velasquez to Warhol, Lichtenstein and other pop artists..

I think Jean Cocteau’s line is accurate: “An original artist is unable to copy. So he has only to copy in order to be original.“

In my own booklet, New Hat, mentioned earlier, I feel all of its best parts were stolen. The idea of an arrogant, defiant man ready for his own stoning I stole from a song by the Mountain Goats. The final moment I stole from a book of Japanese literature. I stole the indignant phrase “in the depths of your ignorance” from a tape recording of Orson Welles recording a voice over for a television commercial selling peas. Utilizing, lifting and grafting these other artistic moments to my own was thrilling; I wish I stole more things like that. Since then I’ve been timid.

-The idea of “ideas and images” comes from Peter Elbow’s idea about words and ideas.
-The countenance of Benny, elsewhere on this blog is basically my good friend Tim Kreider, who contributed many other ideas to this book.

-Benny’s initial story was inspired by this random combination of NANCY panels at right. It “appeared” one day and I thought it was wonderful.
-The IDEA of randomly combining panels of Nancy panels comes completely from Scott McCloud, from whom I’ve probably stolen so so much...
-The idea of “broken routines” comes completely from Keth Johnstone’s Impro for Storytellers.
-My friend Melissa gave me the idea for the to-do lists here
-The idea of “stories as currency” comes from Thomas Moore’s The Reenchantment of the Soul. I imagine he learned or developed it from someone else.
-I stole Eric Maisel’s use of the word “holding” to refer to the image or idea currently in your mind and being developed
-I’m pretty certain I’ve stolen something from Ivan Brunetti but I’m too nervous to look back at his book on cartooning.

I absolutely believe my best work lies ahead of me, and lies in the work I’m absolutely on fire to steal from.

A good composer does not imitate; he steals.
-Igor Stravinsky

EXERCISE - The Art of Stealing

Take something artistic that moves you.

Use it in your own way.



The guiding principle of improvisation in acting and comedy is YES AND... This means AGREEING to the previous ideas and images (“YES”), and ADDING to them (“AND”).

There are tons of terrible “jam” comix out there because people resolutely defy this improvisational principle. They blow up developing characters with brand new bombs, draw random inspiration from previous panel and draw whatever they feel like, destroying entire premises for the momentary thrill of drawing some car wreck or some unconnected idea while some other idea is clearly developing.

So, agreeing to an idea/image, and then adding to it is essentially what we are talking about. You can do this with yourself.

The rough draft above was sketched no more than two panels per day for about a week. Note the questions and ideas in the right margin after day 1.

I personally find that I needed time in between ideas. Some people are a lot faster. We all have our rhythms.

The above improvisation, by Joe Matt, Seth and Chester Brown demonstrates the “YES AND” principle exceptionally well. Panel 1 establishes a situation- a plane landing. Panel 2 agrees, YES, AND: it crashes into another plane. Panel 3 and 4 both agree and add detail and texture. Panel 5 picks up the YES AND of the narrative again. YES there was a crash, AND there was one survivor. AND he found his suitcase (panel 6) AND it contains his model ship (panel 7) AND a wounded kid in panel 8 thinks it’s his AND the guy finds the kid’s real ship in panel 9. A great improvisation. No one stepping on each other’s toes, every artist respecting the choices of the previous one, each artist making the previous one look good by adding to their ideas.


There are lots of codified improvisation “forms” in theater. Except for the “Exquisite Corpse”, a visual collaboration created by the Dadaists, there really isn’t a tradition of structured improvisation in American comix. I’ve always lamented this, so I’m going to propose a few here:

THE HAPPY CLOWN- any number of creators.
Inspired by Chester Brown: a story in which with a panel that reads “Aggh- I’ve accidentally broken my leg.” Bonus points if it’s the final panel. EXTRA bonus points if you can make an evening of it, tell frequent stories, where the “Aggh” panel begins in panel 1 of the evening’s first story, then the second in the second, etc until it’s the final panel in the final story. Clink beers. Everyone stumbles home.

THE SIXTO - two creators.
A 3 row, 2 column grid is created. Creator 1 begins by drawing panel 1. Creator 2 Draws panel 6. Creator 1 must next draw a panel in the 2nd tier (panels 3 or 4.) From there, the page is passed back and forth, the creators choosing which remaining panel they want to complete until all six are done.

THE CINDER OF OZ - any number of creators.
A character emerges in a landscape. It meets 3 other characters, each introducing the next one to the main character. At least one panel must feature a character completely upside down, at least one is of cinders or a puddle of dissolved goo.

THE CREATURE FEATURE - for two creators.
Each begins by creating a single image landscape. One image will become panel one and the other will become the final panel in the strip. Working from panel one, they trade off panel by panel until they reach the final panel and consider it finished.

And finally, THE RAPSCALLION, a jam in 7 scenes, based on improv comedy’s “Harold” form. Any number of creators, though best with 1-4. All creators should work on scene 3, 6 and 7. Other scenes can be limited to 1 or 2 creators, as the group sees fit.

scene 1- 2 characters, different in visual size or scale.
scene 2 - a monologue by different character
scene 3 - a single drawing of a landscape, with at least one creature in it
scene 4 - 2 characters again, related in some way to scene 1
scene 5 - monologist again, related in some way to scene 2
scene 6 - a landscape like scene 3. No connection necessary.
scene 7 - the piece is ended in this scene, mixing as many of the above materials as possible, and finalized per rules of the usual “jam”, i.e., one panel at a time.

EXERCISE - Improvisation

1. Start with two characters and a relationship.

Using the techniques we covered: attaching, daydreaming, listing options, etc.; draw a 9 panel comic, at the pace of 1 panel each day for 9 days.

Do this slowly; the mind needs to react as if the material is new. It’s important to forget yesterday’s work.

If this is frustratingly slow, do 2 or 3 improvisations at a time. Remember the principle of YES AND.

2. Find a partner to make an unstructured jam with.

3. Make a Cinder of Oz, a Rapscallion, a Happy Clown or a Creature Feature

STAYING ENGAGED FOREVER: Test your characters

We always wonder about our plot: Is it funny enough? Exciting enough? Grave enough? Puzzling and suspenseful enough? But really little of this matters before you sit down to explore your characters.

Usually, the best thing a plot does is enliven your characters.

Even plot heavy stories like detective stories and superhero battles (the best ones anyway), have great lively characters.

I had a friend who is terrific at autobiographical humor, ask me to read two short scenes from a story she was writing. I read them. They were playful and funny and I told her they were good. She seemed disappointed. She really sweated for them, wanted them to be brilliant, and was perhaps a little afraid to keep going.

I told her that with good characters and the self discipline to sit down, you can write dozens more of these effortlessly. The key is having good characters, and injecting them with interesting enough new situations. You’ve probably heard it before: the characters write themselves.

We created a half-dozen characters in chapter 3, and maybe more on our own. In the next exercise, let’s throw them into some situations and explore.


1. Make a list of potential situations that any character might find themselves in, like having an upset stomache or losing their favorite childhood toy or running from a comet heading towards the earth. Imagine each of your characters in this situation. How would they react? Make a silly chart. This is just game playing.

Kundera again: “Making a character alive means getting to the bottom of his existential problem.”

There are probably 8 million ways to push and press at our characters psychological make-ups. Let’s imagine up a few more:

2. if your character were in a psychiatrist’s office, what would he/she say? More importantly, how different is it from his/her real problems?

3. Write a typical to-do list for your character. What’s a typical to-do list for him or her look like? Let this be the beginning of a story. Let ideas and images come to you about one of the items on that list, or maybe the entire list. Keep in mind the elements of drama and poetry we’ve considered... What’s hiding in that to-do list?

4. Go backwards. Create the to-do list first, then the character. Ask yourself, who would create a list like this?

All of this adds to your character’s store. File it, find the right time to use it or play with it. Build it out.

5. Steal ideas for games from anywhere- how about the chorus of a Bruce Springsteen song, Born to Run? What would our characters say people like them are Born to Do?

-Die like dogs
-Serve our masters
-Be beautiful monkey wrenches in the corporate machine!
-Be on stage!
-Fight over girls

6. Create a monologue for your character, where he or she describes something that we’ve already seen. Watch for and allow differences. Let the character act physically. Get out of your chair and act it out yourself as you go.

7. Put your character through exercise #1 in this book (see my version, below.)

You could make playful games like this forever.


What’s the thing you know the most about? Use it. You’re allowed to be clever and you’re allowed to play to your strengths.

What did you write about knowing about in the first chapter? Like me, bowling? Knot tying? How to saute onions? Knitting? Allow your character to be that expert. Create someone to counter her or him. Create a situation to enable this knowledge to come out, but always allow space to daydream and attach other images to it. Or combine it with something you’ve already begun.

BRESSON’S film PICKPOCKET (right) has so many mesmerizing scenes detailing the art of pickpocketting. It’s a ballet of constant precise and arcane movement, and it’s gorgeous to watch.

Let these things come out through the mouth or actions of character. Or maybe it’s through YOUR actions. Know a lot about drawing? Let your character be an artist. Show off. Know your characters exceptionally well? Let them out.

Entire subgenres of mystery novels that center on this idea. Solving mysteries is about attention to detail and these books allow their authors to focus on observational detail and all the products of their knowledge, obsessions and curiousity. A series of mysteries set in a bowling alley? Yes!

This book is not about starting as a blank slate. It’s about growing the items stored on that slate, allowing them to intermingle with your own impressions and fascinations, towards new ideas.

As an epileptic, my thoughts often veer towards seizures, attacks and my fragile little head. I finally decided to use this constant familiarity and I gave Ali, the character I co-create with Margo Dabaie fierce, crippling headaches. These strips were fun to write, despite their horrific origins. I was using feelings I had experienced deeply to add detail to a character in my store.


Imagine a situation or moment in which your character shows someone else this thing he/she knows well. What motivates your character? Is she bragging? Is it a life or death situation? Is he a big bore?

Create a scene using the techniques described in these postings. Build it forward, backward; attach other images and ideas to it to allow it to grow.

STAYING ENGAGED FOREVER: Create space for happy accidents

Some of the greatest creative joys you can experience are when something unexpected happens that focuses, reframes or adorns your project in a new way. Prepare for these moments, allow yourself to not know everything at the onset, and expect to be challenged, delighted and surprised by your own efforts. Prepare yourself by making a mess, but also by knowing your mind.

Use your index cards or whatever organizing tools you’ve decided on. I try to shake my cards out of their stale, organized sections and mix them among other ideas and images. I purposefully put notes and scribbles on the wrong sheets, mix the new in with the old, make new notes on tracing paper, or create new computer files on top of copies of old files to allow accidental combinations and layered creations to pop up. It’s a mess, but it’s the mess of me, and if I examine it closely and intelligently, I can find the themes and stories hiding there, and begin to craft it into something compelling.


1. Pull out two books, a newspaper or magazine, and a stack of ideas and images on the space in front of you. Turn on the TV (but turn the sound off.) What’s the first song that comes to your head. Whistle it.

Look for new connections. Record them, add them to your store.

2. If the above is too over-stimulating, the pull out an “image that sings” and a newspaper clipping. Combine like in exercise xx (forthcoming!) Record.

Staying Engaged Forever Exercise 0 - Always be holding an image or idea

Item zero: always be working on something, if only to be keeping your mental state creative and healthy. To me, that can be a book project as well as it could be fixing a dam, raising a kid, washing your laundry or whatever. This may sound a little Ben Franklin, but I think the mind works best that is steered towards well-considered goals.

In our case, it means always be holding an image or an idea. Maybe that image is a character, maybe that idea is an opinion or plot point, but keep it and roll it around in your pocket or in some part of your brain.

Tumble it with your time and attention. Now it’s a piece of glass, a stone being polished. Whether you are full of random thoughts that are going nowhere, or if you are actively engaged, apply your thoughts and ideas to this held image or idea, test them out, build your store, and develop your project.

Make it Mean Something

The basic principle of every spiritual and religious practice is: This is happening. Make it mean something. It’s the only choice we have.

It is true in our creative practice, too. Take what’s happening in your notebooks, sketchbook, in your daydreaming brain and linefield, and shape it into something meaningful. Don’t lament lack of talent, or what you deem useless through the lens of someone else’s judgement. Arm yourself with belief that your only option is to be present and to respond to what is happening now. That response may be to practice more, but it may also be to continue finding those original and subterranean things, drawing them out, combining and presenting them.

“This is happening, make it mean something” is our guiding principle. As artists and people, we can effect what is “happening” through study and practice, but additionally in art, we have the option to discard something if it isn’t working. We can abort unsatisfying things and begin some new “happening.”

Use this explorative time, this play space and time where you’ve allowed yourself to be braver than you might be in real life, to challenge your assumptions and to fail over and over again.

Don’t like a sketch? Redraw it. Or combine it with some other doodle. Revise, shape or discard. Just continue and don’t dismiss your own efforts. Honor them, make them mean something. Even if you decide to chalk your efforts up to “practice” and move on.

The beginnings of art-making can be messy. Lots of searching and collecting. When its fast its called brainstorming, when its slow its called woolgathering or sometimes composting.

Either way I liken it to the shape of a funnel. A lot going in early on. A lot being sampled and tried, a lot being tested. As we continue, we’re less random and instead find more and more relevant ideas and images. Suddenly the irrelevant ideas and images have less pull. Irrelevant to what? To the themes, patterns and main ideas that are starting to emerge...

I like Jack Kerouac’s opinion: “Something you feel will find its own form.”

When that form begins to appear you can go back and edit out stuff not working, material that’s not serving to illuminate your themes.

Save the stuff that’s not working for the next project. Add it to your store. File it away somewhere and start from there next time you think you don’t have an idea. It meant enough to jot down once. Will it mean something again? It might, it might not, but try it. That’s always the first step.

So what can we do to stay active? How can we stay engaged, find meaning and keep believing? What follows in these postings are some ideas about searching tirelessly for new content, some methods for subverting the critical mind before we’re read for it, and an array of first and later steps to get you moving, keep you questioning and playing with your own material, and staying engaged forever.