Menu Close

From the Classroom: Critical-Making with Comics and Graphic Medicine During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Justin Wigard, PhD, Michigan State University

Zaria Cannon, Michigan State University

Claudia Kramer, Michigan State University

ENG 325: Studies in Graphic Narratives((Special thanks to comics studies and Michigan State University colleagues who provided support and assistance in this article and throughout ENG 325: Zack Kruse, Julian Chambliss, Matthew Noe, Stephany Bravo, Randy Scott, and Kate Topham.)) is a special topics seminar taught in the Department of English at Michigan State University. Typically, the course has centered around canonical and contemporary graphic novels, introducing students to critical interrogations of Maus by Art Spiegelman, A Contract with God by Will Eisner, March by John Lewis et al, My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris, and others. In spring 2021, I was offered the opportunity to teach the course in Fall 2021 face-to-face (F2F) as part of MSU’s plan to open campus up to F2F learning. Most of these students were juniors and seniors, with a small handful of sophomores. As this was the first return to campus since going virtual in March 2020, my intention was to offer a unique and contemporary version of the course, one that was a) explicitly interdisciplinary; b) connected to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic;((This article follows in the footsteps of other educators adapting to and acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic, but particularly comics scholars like Lisa Diedrich who acknowledges the difficulty of studying/teaching illness at the best of times which is exacerbated during the pandemic. Diedrich, Lisa. “Comics as Pedagogy: On Studying Illness in a Pandemic.” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, vol. 1, no. 1, 2022. DOI: 10.16995/cg.7680 Accessed 3 August 2022.)) c) anti-racist and inclusive; and d) centered around practices of critical-making: the conjoined application of critical-thinking and material-making.((Matt Ratto “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” The Information Society, vol. 27, no. 4, 2011, pp. 252-260, DOI: 10.1080/01972243.2011.583819))

My version of ENG 325 introduced students to three distinct frameworks for understanding graphic narratives (close reading, critical-making, and digital humanities) in three primary content areas: children’s & young adult comics, graphic medicine, and comics archives, by way of the MSU Comic Arts Collection. Every week, students read one primary graphic narrative, one or two supplementary critical lenses for understanding the graphic narrative at hand, create short comics in class, and complete a one-page comic accompanied by a 250-word write-up about their comic. As I put it to my students, “In this course, we will read and make comics as a way of knowing about the world.” Each student then expanded a one-page comic into two separate four-page midterm comics accompanied by 1000-word write-ups. The students’ final was a 12-page comic (expanded from the midterm), replete with front and back covers, six pages of comics, and a 1250-word/four-page backmatter essay. 

This article lays out the structure and outcomes for the course, as well as my own pedagogical insights gleaned through offering a comics course centered around critical-making for an interdisciplinary student body. I then move on to detail how I deployed COVID-19 related graphic medicine within the classroom and how students, in turn, found significant purchase in drawing comics about their experiences during the pandemic. From here, I discuss three critical outcomes to ENG 325: 1) student copies of their comics; 2) archival donation of ENG 325 comics to the MSU Library; 3) digital showcase and archive of ENG 325 comics. 

Accompanying this article are three additional components that offer some unique compliment to existing comics pedagogy scholarship and COVID-19 comics writing. First, throughout the article, two of my students (Zaria Cannon and Claudia Kramer) offer their own insights into their experiences in the course. These sections are included within this article to denote their voice; their contributions are significant and representative of the student experience that is core to the classroom. Second, this article features an educational packet of prepackaged and portable lesson plans with brief commentary on how I deployed each major (or minor) assignment, as well as possible modifications for different styles of learning/teaching. Finally, Zaria and Claudia’s comics are included to demonstrate the ethos of the course and as evidence of course outcomes along with written rationales/analyses in the final projects to provide further insight into how students approached creating their comics. 

Course Structure and Outcomes

As a special topics seminar, the course is open to students beyond the English major. My own course had 33 students enrolled (35 maximum), comprised of nine English majors and seventeen other majors. These majors varied widely, from Games & Interactive Media to Psychology, Journalism to Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. Several students were also from MSU’s Minor in Comic Art and Graphic Novels. I mention this student population to highlight that many of these students do not identify as comics creators, nor as artists, illustrators, or cartoonists. In fact, a dominant trend in students’ first-week surveys was that many felt that they had no artistic ability at all, or that they were only capable of drawing stick figures. As such, we began with two primary texts: Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening and Lynda Barry’s Making Comics. These comics texts acted as tentpoles for the course, providing students with examples of critical-making in action: both Sousanis and Barry utilize the comics medium to articulate ideas about the medium, their own practices, and how the two relate to larger questions about society and the human condition. Some students naturally gravitated to Barry’s visceral and intuitive path to making comics,((Diedrich (2022) found similar success applying Barry’s inviting approach to drawing comics with students making pandemic comics, particularly artistically-averse/inexperienced students (n.p.).))

while others emulated Sousanis’s complex and esoteric approach. We returned to these texts throughout the semester, completing exercises from Making Comics to jumpstart our in-class drawing while working through Unflattening as a theoretical text advocating innovative thinking. 

First Impressions

Zaria: “I picked this class because it was required in my minor in Comic Art & Graphic novels. I was very excited to learn about comics and look at them from a different viewpoint. Not just reading them for fun, but viewing them with a critical and analytical mindset. When I learned we would be making our own comics, I became very excited. Especially since I already have experience in making my own comics.”

Claudia: “I was one of the students who had a very limited artistic background. As such, I was intimidated by the class when I realized how much of the course would involve creating our own comics. I had expected to be reading and analyzing visual work, but had not planned to design and display any of my own art. ”

ENG 325 centered on students not only reading comics, but writing and drawing about them. Drawing upon Barry’s activities from Making Comics, I had students complete daily, in-class notecard drawings , discussing a comic in conjunction with assigned supplementary materials, and in a few cases, speaking with invited guest speakers like Tim Fielder and Trung Le Nguyen. These notecards served a dual function of taking attendance in a low-stakes manner while priming students for the kinds of visual thinking we would apply during class.  

Notecard Drawing Reflection: 

Zaria “I’ve never viewed a one page drawing as a comic before. They just seem like pictures to me, and some of them have words on them, but it never registered in my brain that this could be a comic. So making the daily note cards was really enjoyable. It helped me realize it doesn’t take much to make a comic, and I don’t have to put so much pressure on myself to create. Sharing the comics was really fun too, because on just one prompt so many different people could make something completely different, and it was always a blast to see.”

Claudia: “I enjoyed creating the daily notecard drawings because it felt like a way to create under very little pressure. Additionally, the prompts we were given each week were an “excuse” to try drawing something new, something I would not usually try. Sharing the notecards in front of the class was different—it felt like it required far more courage than I possessed. I waited about 10 weeks into the class to share my own drawing, until I felt I had something worthy of everyone’s attention. This long-awaited “worthy” drawing turned out to be very simple—a three-legged, cartoon stegosaurus.”

At the end of each week, students would then create a one-page comic related to one of the comics with an accompanying 250-word write-up detailing the comic and analyzing what they drew. Students initially had two options for their weekly comics: Graphic Reviews or Illustrated Definitions. They would choose one option, and then complete that assignment in relation to a smaller pool of topics (e.g. Graphic Reviews initially of Unflattening or Making Comics; Illustrated Definitions of “graphic narrative,” “visual rhetoric,” or “critical-making”). For Option 1, Graphic Reviews, I provided my students with Ted Rall’s comic-form book review of Anna Badkhen’s The World is a Carpet.((Ted Rall, “A Book Review in Comic Form: Anna Badkhen’s The World is a Carpet,” Columbia Journalism Review, 2013)) I then had students envision what their own reviews could look like in comics form, how they can critique a text using both visual and written communication. Option 2, Illustrated Definition, spun out of a similar desire to encourage students to move past traditional written definitions, and instead, visualize their own understanding of theoretical, abstract concepts that were central to our course. Each week, students would gain access to another text, as well as a key concept or two related to that week’s primary comic. 

For the mid-term project, students developed one of these weekly drawings into a longer four-page comic with a comparably longer write-up. I built in scaffolding to help students gradually move from one-page comics into longer narratives; students could turn in drafts of expanded pages from their weekly assignments in later weeks. By the midpoint of the semester, students had larger pools of topics to choose from: six comics to complete a Graphic Review of, or an Illustrated Definition of a single term from a pool of ten key concepts or words. They had also spoken with two comics creators, Fielder and Nguyen, who each imparted lessons about the importance of drafting comics, following through with their projects, and drawing authentically for public audiences. 

I drew on existing comics pedagogy scholarship as well as Matt Ratto’s work in critical-making for the design of the course outcomes.((In addition to the work of Sousanis and Barry as noted above, I also drew inspiration from the following comics pedagogy pieces: Dale Jacobs, “More than Words: Comics as a Means of Teaching Multiple Literacies,” The English Journal, vol. 96, no. 3, 2007, pp. 19–25. DOI: 10.2307/30047289 Accessed 3 August 2022; Enrique Del Rey Cabero, Michael Goodrum, and Josean Morlesin Mellado, “How to Study Comics & Graphic Novels: A Graphic Introduction to Comics Studies,” Oxford Comics Network, 2021,; Victoria Rossetti, Tess Grynoch, and Sarah Levin-Lederer, “Well-Conceived and Ill-Drawn: Hosting ‘Ill-Conceived and Well-Drawn,’” an NLM Exhibition, 2019.)) Ratto tells us that with critical-making, “Our goal is therefore to use material forms of engagement with technologies to supplement and extend critical reflection and, in doing so, to reconnect our lived experiences with technologies to social and conceptual critique.”((Ratto, “Critical Making,” 253.)) While Ratto is talking particularly about digital technologies, I adopt Ernesto Priego and Peter Wilkins’ stance that comics are their own technology: “the comics grid, the array of panels, can be understood as a specific technology of ‘revealing’ through ‘enframing’, and as such is the key element in comics technology.”((Ernesto Priego and Peter Wilkins, “The Question Concerning Comics as Technology: Gestell and Grid,” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–26. DOI: 10.16995/cg.133 Accessed 3 August 2022.))  Taken together, the course’s outcomes (Table 1) centered around students understanding theoretical concepts related to comics, materializing those through the act of comics production, and reflecting critically on their practical methodologies and artifacts. The final project, the 12-page comic with its accompanying reflection, provides students with a chance to demonstrate these outcomes in both written and material production. 

Learning Outcomes for ENG 325

Table 1

Content-based outcomes

Skills-based outcomes

Demonstrate in written work a broad familiarity with the purpose, function, and history of graphic narratives in myriad forms. Engage in practices of critical-making via creating comics and digital visualizations.
Be familiar with core concepts of graphic narratives, such as: paneling; lettering; thumbnails; inking; perspective; abstract vs realistic; time; space; etc. Develop experience in critical reflection and written articulation.
Recognize and understand how graphic narratives can promote values of diversity, gender, and identity. Participate in a public exhibit of critical creations. 

Anonymous student evaluations of the course followed a few common trends: acknowledging the ability to make broader connections between comics and society or between graphic medicine and society; an appreciation for the medium beyond the popular superhero fare; and a feeling of empowerment to continue drawing or making art. One student wrote in their semester evaluations: “I was really unsure of this course- my comics knowledge was, in a word, limited. Plus, I never drew. This course pushed me out of my comfort zone and even though other people seeing my childish drawings made me feel a bit exposed, everyone was very kind and receptive.” This sentiment was echoed by several students in their final evaluations, including Zaria and Claudia.

Course Outcome Reflection 

Zaria: “Taking this class, I really liked learning how comics can be more than just silly little stories to share with people. Comics are a medium not a genre, and being able to tell non fictional stories with them is really cool. Especially graphic medicine. I really loved reading the books we read for that subject: El Deafo quickly became one of my favorite graphic novels. How Cece Bell took her “disability” and made it a superpower of her own. Stories like this always get me excited and seeing them in comic form just made it even better, as I love comics. I loved learning about the many different types of comics, because I plan to become a comic book writer/artist one day and I can create my own nonfiction comics to share with others.”

Claudia: “While I came into this course nervous, my favorite part was learning about how comics can be taken seriously. I wasn’t aware of the wide variety of research done in this field; learning about the various ways comics are considered important over the course of this class made me more confident in my own ability to create comics. As someone whose drawings are definitely childish in style, I didn’t believe I was capable of making valuable art. Seeing published comics that looked like mine, like Lynda Barry’s work, was proof that I was “allowed” to make (and enjoy making) comics. On a non-comics related note, I really enjoyed the Queer-positive environment cultivated in this class—students shared pronouns before speaking in class and the texts we studied represented a wide range of demographics.”

I include these comments to highlight the unexpected responses that students had to the process, particularly students who did not identify as artists, cartoonists, or comics aficionados. These sentiments ran rampant through our classroom discussions, both in-person and online. 

COVID Chronicles in the Classroom

It is of course impossible to discuss the work accomplished this semester without acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on my classroom and students, both before ENG 325 and during the course itself. Indeed, comics studies and various branches of academia have been quick to note comics’ responsive and expressive capabilities in relation to the pandemic.((For instance, scholars have already begun the work of reporting out on comics used for graphic medicine, medical/contagion discourse dissemination, using comics in the classroom for therapeutic reasons, etc. See also: Kathleen Dunley, Ernesto Priego, and Peter Wilkins. “Our Pandemic Year: On the Comics Scholarship to Come.” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, DOI:; Callender, Brian, Shirlene Obuobi, M. K. Czerwiec, and Ian Williams. “COVID-19, comics, and the visual culture of contagion.” The Lancet vol. 396, no. 10257, 2020, pp. 1061-1063. DOI:; West, Kathryn, Karen R. Jackson, Tobias L. Spears, and Brian Callender. “Creating Comics to Address Well-Being and Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Health Promotion Practice (2021). DOI: This was the first in-person semester back for MSU, so flexibility was needed, as were immediate adjustments. When students were absent due to illness (COVID or otherwise), I opted for distance participation by allowing students to create and upload a page of sketchnotes visualizing their experience reading our primary comic for the week. While this did not replace in-person lectures nor the just-as-significant experience of peer-to-peer learning, it did allow students to continue deepening their capacity for drawing their thinking out. 

In our graphic medicine unit (roughly 2/3rds through the semester) we read excerpts from COVID Chronicles: A Comics Anthology, edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson. This graphic anthology features over sixty short comics by dozens of creators: first-time illustrators and Eisner winners, medical professionals, stay-at-home parents, etc. It was important for me not only to adapt the course to the COVID-19 pandemic, but expose students to ways in which creators drew comics about the pandemic. During the first week we read COVID Chronicles, students were initially hesitant or skeptical. We talked about how difficult it can be to read comics about a currently ongoing phenomenon that is shared by all of us. 

But students also discussed that these comics did not necessarily mirror their own experiences. As college students, very few were frontline workers, for example, and were unable to identify as closely with the comics from doctors, nurses, or EMTs. Students did, however, discuss still having to work retail jobs before vaccinations had been devised and distributed. The comics that did tend to resonate with students were those about the ennui of working/schooling from home for weeks on end, or those that dealt with more universal emotions: grief, small joys, social distancing (particularly during the early periods of the pandemic). Towards the end of that first day, one student (Claudia, actually!) asked in our whole-class discussion, “Can we make our own COVID Chronicles for our weekly comics?” Up to this point, as highlighted, students only had access to three options: Illustrated Definitions; Graphic Book Reviews; and Graphic Medicine pieces.((Here I draw a distinction between students’ Graphic Medicine assignments (written with capital letters) and the term graphic medicine broadly conceived.)) I responded to Claudia in the affirmative: “Of course. We will try it for the week as an additional option, and see how it goes.” 


Reflection on the COVID Chronicle Suggestion

Claudia: “If I remember correctly, I asked for this option because of how impactful I found the COVID Chronicles book that we studied as a class. While some of the content was difficult to read, it really drove home the point that we were living through an important world event, and that our experiences mattered. I wanted to try contributing to the collection of COVID stories that I saw represented.”

Zaria: “2020 was a terrible year, depending on who you ask. If you ask me, I would say it was a great year! 2021 on the other hand… Reading through COVID Chronicles made me realize how much people suffered through that time we all were unfamiliar with. I, myself, never caught COVID, so reading through people’s experiences with it was kind of hard to read, but I’m very happy that I was able to learn of their experiences. When I came into class the next day, I was hoping we could create our own COVID Chronicle. Claudia then suggested that we should make our own, and I squealed on the inside, and immediately started to script my own.” 

This student-centered moment proved to be a pivotal point in the course, as it shifted the course outcomes – particularly student comics – to directly engaging with and making pandemic-inspired comics, rather than simply engaging with comics during this unique time.  Students gravitated towards the new assignment. Whereas previously many were hesitant to talk about the pandemic due to living through the experience, they now began to share critical reflections on how they survived the first few weeks of the pandemic; what monotony, connection, and grief looked like in isolation; how campus changed for them from 2020 to 2021; and more. For instance, I shared about my experience as an educator in March 2020: my concerns for my students, my panic about the unknown pandemic, that I met with my students on March 10th, 2020, and together we developed a game plan about what our class would look like if MSU pivoted online – which happened the very next day. My students shared moments of vulnerability in kind, bonding over shared experiences of confusion and chaos as they left campus suddenly; stress over isolation due to exposure; dealing with “Zoom University” and a full year of online classes (or, for some of my first-year students, the experience of graduating high school in an online environment). While my students exhibited signs of open dialogue and collaborative activity befitting a community of learners prior to this class period, the moment brought them together as a community of people with common stories of the pandemic experienced individually. 

Beyond that, they applied critical thinking to how those stories could be told visually. In thinking about the final outcomes of the course (the 12-page comic, archival submission, and online public exhibit), students worked to tailor these comics for a community beyond the classroom. While many of these efforts can be seen directly within the student comics, I turn to Zaria and Claudia for their experiences in what it was like to make their own COVID Chronicles. 

Reflection on Making COVID Chronicles

Claudia: “For me, COVID chronicles were the easiest comics to make all semester, because they were inspired by lived experiences. It felt like there was no wrong way to make them—for an illustrated definition or graphic review, I was nervous about misrepresenting something, because I was never an expert on the thing I was drawing. For our COVID chronicles, I was illustrating my own life, so I finally knew I was the best person to tell those stories.”

Zaria: “Initially, when I made my first COVID chronicle it compared the months of April, May and June. from 2020 to 2021. 2020 was nice for me, as I am an introvert and being forced to stay inside was amazing. 2021, however, the weight of what was going on started to set in, and things were taking a turn for the worse. I based my final comic off of my covid chronicle and it touched on the loss of my grandpa to COVID. It hurt a lot to work on something that sad, but it was freeing at the same time. If I had to make it again I would in a heartbeat.”

Student Comics in the MSU Comic Arts Collection

As a first-generation scholar teaching at a land-grant university, it was important for me to ensure that my students’ voices were not only heard but preserved. Thus, one primary outcome for ENG 325 focused on students donating a single copy of their 12-page comic to the MSU Comic Arts Collection. This is not the first time that MSU students have donated comics to the collection. Ryan Claytor((Coordinator of the Comic Art and Graphic Novel Minor and Assistant Professor at Michigan State University)) has had students donate comics to the archive since he started teaching at MSU in 2009, and Julian Chambliss((Professor of English and Val Berryman Curator of History for the Michigan State University Museum)) has his students donate critical zines about comics characters. These archival practices in our comics courses are significant. As Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba note, “Special collections and archives engage and empower undergraduates as well as enhance their learning experiences. These materials are far more than mere survivors of the past; they are truly portals to new ways of learning and thinking.”((Eleanor Mitchell, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba, “Introduction,” in Past Or Portal? Enhancing Undergraduate Learning Through Special Collections and Archives, United States: Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, 2012, pp. ix-xiii.)) We have a unique opportunity at Michigan State University to introduce students to the possibilities of reading, studying, and making comics, to be sure. But, we also can intentionally use the archive as a portal to demonstrate the long history of comics at MSU, as well as show students comics from their peers, thus using the archive as something of a mirror: it isn’t just the graphic narratives of comics professionals and cartoonists in the archive, but fellow students.

Due to the Fall 2021 pandemic, I was unable to safely bring my class of 33 students to the archives as has historically been an option. Instead, Randall W. Scott((Randall W. Scott, or “Randy” as he prefers to be called, is assistant head of Special Collections, head curator of the MSU Comic Art Collection, and author of Comics Librarianship: A Handbook. McFarland & Company Incorporated Pub, 1990.)) visited my classroom, bringing comics from the archives to students and teaching them about the strengths of the collection. Scott’s visit occurred in week four of our sixteen-week course: after students were exposed to our foundational texts and theories, but before they started work on their first major mid-term comic project. This selection included Golden and Silver Age comics, independent comics, and, especially germane to ENG 325, previous student comics. Indeed, a few of my students had previously contributed comics to the comics archives in their past courses; these students took on an ad-hoc advocate role, speaking with their peers about what it meant to them to donate something they made.((In fact, one such comic from a student was in Randy’s selection for the day, and another student in the class discovered the connection, leading to a unique discovery: an archived comic was from one of our very own, a mini-celebrity for the day!)) Pedagogically, Scott’s visit provided students with tangible implications of creating their comics and depositing them in the special collections. They realized that future comics classes – their peers, even – would be able to see and learn from their work in the library, that their work would be preserved and shared to a large audience in perpetuity. After this class period, students began thinking more critically about their contributions to the archive, specifically regarding their 12-page comics: what stories they wanted to preserve, and how they wanted to visualize their own experiences. 

Reflection on Sharing Comics and Seeing Student Comics

Zaria: “One of my comics was passed around the class, and it was exciting to see, but also nerve-wracking. Mainly because that specific comic is not one of my favorites. It still, however, is my comic so it was really exciting to see my classmates read something that I put a lot of time and effort into.”

Claudia: “I was excited to see another student’s published work because it seemed like an example of what I’d be working towards that semester. I didn’t have time to read the entirety of Zaria’s comic during that class period, but I remember being impressed (and intimidated) by all the detail she put into it and the personal style she developed within her artwork.”

A related product of ENG 325 was a digital showcase that I put together to preserve student work. While their comics are preserved physically in the MSU archives, it was important for me to construct a space where their comics could be engaged with digitally and publicly. This is corroborated by Paizha Stoothoff and Azalea Camacho, who note that “Digitizing student-created publications…preserves students’ unique experiences by including them in the archives. It also sends a message to students that their work is a valuable part of the library’s collection.”((Paizha Stoothoff and Azalea Camacho, “Advancing Inclusive Digital Collections And Student Scholarship Through Participatory Learning Approaches,” ACRL 2021, pp. 261-268. Last accessed 23 March 2022: )) This digital archive was created using WordPress and a plugin tool called 3D FlipBook to emulate the tactile experience of flipping through each student’s comic book. It was also organized thematically based on students’ topics, then broken down further into sample smaller assignments. Future plans involve working with the MSU Library to create an Omeka-based digital archive that will be housed within the Library’s ecosystem, preferably within the MSU Graphic Possibilities OER dedicated to comics and pedagogy.((This is a LibGuide created by the Graphic Possibilities Graduate Research Workshop in the English Department at Michigan State University. It provides entry points for comics scholarship and pedagogy. Julian Chambliss, Nicole Huff, Zack Kruse, and Justin Wigard, “Graphic Possibilities: A Comics Research Guide,” 2020-present, Accessed 3 May 2022: Omeka is a free, open-source publishing platform that specializes in online and media-rich exhibits, offering stability, security, and flexibility in preserving and presenting media. Yet, all the same, in a course on making comics and critical-making, I wanted to ensure my students walked away with a material object, not just preserved digital versions. 

Thus, one final outcome was that students received two printed copies of their comic, in addition to depositing a copy to the MSU archives. This ensured that students were able to see the comics that they had made and still hold onto a visual and textual artifact that reflected at least eight weeks’ worth of work. But, this also delivered on the “making” part of Ratto’s critical-making framework – we devoted the final day of ENG 325 to our own in-class comics showcase, where each student was handed their 12-page comics. We sat for some time simply reading through these products and examining them before actually discussing them as a class. Students volunteered to come up to the front of the class and share what they made, and why. Ratto notes that “while critical making organizes its efforts around the making of material objects, devices themselves are not the ultimate goal,” instead that these ultimate outcomes are found in the sharing out of results (particularly via avenues of community engagement) and active, ongoing critical analyses of the making processes and practices (253).

SUTL Fellowship and Critical-Making as Scholarship

Beyond the outcomes of the course, my pedagogy also informs my research. In Spring 2021, I was awarded a Scholarship of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning (SUTL) Fellowship from the MSU Lyman Briggs College (LBC), a residential college that offers “students a solid foundation in biological, physical, mathematical and computational sciences while also exploring the impact of science in society.”. As part of this SUTL Fellowship, I was paired up with a LBC faculty member, Professor Megan Halpern, who specializes in research pertaining to interdisciplinary learning between the arts and the sciences; Halpern is also teaching LBC 492, a senior capstone seminar that is required for the STEM students pursuing majors in LBC. Dr. Halpern and I were paired together due to our mutual interests in comics and critical-making. We met several times throughout Summer 2021 to develop our respective courses, exchanging experiences teaching with comics and offering disciplinary support to one another. For instance, I knew that I was planning to teach a unit on graphic medicine and had my primary texts chosen, but was less familiar with secondary sources which examine the intersections of science and comics, an area that Dr. Halpern is exceptionally proficient in. Likewise, I provided some practical exercises for Dr. Halpern to deploy in her courses, and was invited to guest lecture in Dr. Halpern’s course on graphic medicine. Our SUTL Fellowship also allowed us to conduct IRB-approved observational research on each of our classes to study the effects of drawing comics as a way of knowing about science and society. ENG 325 provided a springboard to further understand the pedagogical implications of drawing comics about scientific topics, as well as best practices for approaching such interdisciplinary measures. We plan to collate and code our data in Summer 2022 before sharing the research out more widely. 

Teaching graphic medicine, particularly to a group of students representing several different disciplines, has broadened my own research to interdisciplinary avenues. My students emboldened me to write a review of one comic we read in class, When Stars Are Scattered by Omar Mohamed, Victoria Jamieson, and Iman Geddy. In completing the familiar process of researching, vetting, and preparing my course for Fall 2021, I found myself relying heavily on the Graphic Medicine site’s Reviews section, as well as actively seeking out graphic medicine panels, presentations, and events at academic conferences. Discussing When Stars Are Scattered with my students provided me with deeper insights about the medicinal properties of the comic, prompting me to contribute my own review to Graphic Medicine’s website to provide support for educators looking to research or teach the comic.((Justin Wigard, “When Stars Are Scattered,” Graphic Medicine, 2022, Accessed 3 May 2022: ))

Critical Making as Scholarship Reflections

Zaria: “As an aspiring comic book artist, this class was really helpful. Especially because I didn’t realize how many genres of comics were out there. After this class I started to think of comics as a medium and not a genre. That change of mindset has gotten me much farther in comic book making and I feel more confident to make more serious comics, over one’s just to get a laugh out of a reader.”

Claudia: “As someone whose undergraduate degree is not at all related to comics, I really enjoyed this class. Additionally, as someone hoping to go into the medical field, the graphic medicine unit was very cool. I wouldn’t have realized there was any way to connect comics and medicine without this class, but if I do end up in the medical field, I look forward to exploring how graphic medicine can deepen trust in doctor/patient relationships by exploring patient narratives. This course gave valuable insight as to how comics could play into my future career as a compassionate physician.”


Teaching this traditionally literature-based course through a critical-making focus has radically shifted my pedagogical practices towards a making-oriented approach with public, material outcomes. As I am not a trained cartoonist, much of this course was an experiment in my own critical-making practices and in implementing comics studies and pedagogy knowledge into a blended drawing classroom aimed at an interdisciplinary student body. I gained knowledge and understanding about my own strengths and limitations in comics drawing and comics pedagogy, to be sure. 

Students responded well to the daily notecard drawings, but I made the connection late in the semester (about ten weeks in) to have students flip them over for informal assessments: what was clear from the day’s lesson; what connections they made; what they wanted to know more about for next class. This modification is something I would adopt from the first week for future classes as a quick, low-stakes and high-gain method of student assessment. Beyond modifying existing assignments, I’d like to implement a Comics Annotation assignment popularized by Shawn Gilmore((I first learned about this assignment from Shawn Gilmore, who regularly shares his student annotation examples on his active twitter page. From there, I backtracked Gilmore’s application to Sousanis’s original conception of the assignment. Shawn Gilmore, “Intro to Comics bonus update,” Twitter, 17 Feb 2022, Accessed 13 June 2022. )) and Nick Sousanis,((Nick Sousanis, “Visual Analysis Comics Class,” Spin Weave and Cut, 2022, Accessed 13 June 2022. )) in which students actively mark up and annotate a single comics page. Active annotation is something I have deployed to great effect in my traditional literature courses, but didn’t think to practice with comics. In my future courses, I would print out and bring several pages to have students annotate individually and/or in groups; this way, students do not necessarily need to mark up their expensive comics if they don’t wish to. I also learned that students tended to benefit from the in-class drawing lab days, especially towards the end of the course. I hewed in equal measure towards cartoony comics drawing tutorials, as well as exercises in abstract drawing; future classes will incorporate a couple of brief lessons on life drawing or figure drawing to complement the Barry & Sousanis styles of comics.

But, more importantly, I actively learned from my students. Indeed, working with two of my students on this very article has been wildly eye-opening: seeing the course from their perspective, hearing what lessons resonated, and indeed, shaping the article with two of my students based on their experiences. This article should not be seen as a call for all educators working with graphic narratives to overhaul their classroom to center critical-making practices. Instead, it should be seen as an accounting of one approach to doing so, paired with actionable lesson plans and student examples to serve as reference points.

Student Work


Works Cited

Cabero, Enrique Del Rey, Michael Goodrum, and Josean Morlesin Mellado. “How to Study Comics & Graphic Novels: A Graphic Introduction to Comics Studies.” Oxford Comics Network, 2021, Accessed 3 August 2022.

Callender, Brian, Shirlene Obuobi, M. K. Czerwiec, and Ian Williams. “COVID-19, comics, and the visual culture of contagion.” The Lancet, vol. 396, no. 10257 (2020): 1061-1063. DOI:

Chambliss, Julian, Nicole Huff, Zack Kruse, and Justin Wigard, “Graphic Possibilities: A Comics Research Guide,” MSU Libraries, 2020-present, Accessed 3 May 2022. 

Diedrich, Lisa. “Comics as Pedagogy: On Studying Illness in a Pandemic.” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, vol. 1, no. 1, 2022. DOI: 10.16995/cg.7680. Accessed 3 August 2022.

Dunley, Kathleen, Ernesto Priego, and Peter Wilkins. “Our Pandemic Year: On the Comics Scholarship to Come.” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, DOI: Accessed 3 August 2022.

Gilmore, Shawn. “Intro to Comics bonus update.” Twitter, 17 Feb 2022, Accessed 13 June 2022.

Jacobs, Dale. “More than Words: Comics as a Means of Teaching Multiple Literacies.” The English Journal, vol. 96, no. 3, 2007, pp. 19–25. DOI: 10.2307/30047289. Accessed 3 August 2022.

Mitchell, Eleanor, Peggy Seiden, and Suzy Taraba. “Introduction,” in Past Or Portal? Enhancing Undergraduate Learning Through Special Collections and Archives. United States: Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, 2012, pp. ix-xiii.

Priego, Ernesto and Wilkins, Peter. “The Question Concerning Comics as Technology: Gestell and Grid,” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–26. DOI: 10.16995/cg.133 Accessed 3 August 2022.

Rall, Ted. “A Book Review in Comic Form: Anna Badkhen’s The World is a Carpet.” Columbia Journalism Review, 2013.

Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” The Information Society, vol. 27, no. 4, 2011, pp. 252-260, DOI: 10.1080/01972243.2011.583819. Accessed 3 August 2022.

Rossetti, Victoria, Tess Grynoch, and Sarah Levin-Lederer. “Well-Conceived and Ill-Drawn: Hosting ‘Ill-Conceived and Well-Drawn.’” An NLM Exhibition, 2019.

Sousanis, Nick. “Visual Analysis Comics Class.” Spin Weave and Cut, 2022, Accessed 13 June 2022.

Stoothoff, Paizha and Azalea Camacho. “Advancing Inclusive Digital Collections And Student Scholarship Through Participatory Learning Approaches.” ACRL 2021, pp. 261-268, Accessed March 23, 2022. 

West, Kathryn, Karen R. Jackson, Tobias L. Spears, and Brian Callender. “Creating Comics to Address Well-Being and Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Health Promotion Practice, 2021. DOI:

Wigard, Justin. “When Stars Are Scattered.” Graphic Medicine, 2022, Accessed 3 May 2022. 

Assignment Guidelines

End Notes

Related Articles