Non-Fiction Comics Composition Course [part 1/2]

As of January 2020, undergraduated students at the International Programme in Communication Management [Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University] are able to choose between two Comics Composition sections as part of their Creative Writing curriculum: experimental/fiction comics composition and non-fiction comics composition. The latter is a new 16-week [3 credits] section open to 30 students without any drawing/art training. I’m introducing in this post the preparatory assignments of the “non-fiction comics” section, meant to facilitate the composition of the semester final project; a short autobiographic comics. The two main challenges were to compose a short comics without prior art training, and to write an autobiographic narrative in a country where the autobiographical genre is almost absent from local literature (and comics) as it is seen as ill-mannered in Thai culture to talk about oneself, and as shortcomings or mishaps are not to be disclosed in a context where [to save (i.e. preserve)] the face or self-image is essential. However, in a globalizing world and because of the “international” nature of the programme and of the students’ education [often in international schools], I considered these challenges worth facing.

The class was composed of 34 students [29 female students and 5 male students], and included 6 exchange students from abroad. All artworks are reprinted with the consent of the students, and remain their property.


On the first week of class, students were asked to acquire a notebook and draw an entry related to their daily life every day and over the complete 16-week semester. The goal was to help the students to familiarize themselves with the act of drawing and the observation of their surroundings and inner thoughts and feelings. Progress was checked in the classroom every two weeks, then online when the Faculty closed its doors due to the pandemic. At times, the graphic diaries revealed the frustration, the angst and sometimes the isolation experimented by the students during the lockdown.

Pages from student Paint’s graphic diary. In January 2020, before the spread of the Covid pandemic, face masks were already worn due to the high level of PM 2.5 air pollution.
Page from student Eve’s graphic diary. On February 3, French cartoonist Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine was our guest to talk autobiography, comics, time/space and memory, and show us pages from his own notebooks.


After a first short lecture introducing non-fiction comics [autobiography, confessional comics, graphic medecine and comics journalism; with examples from Julie Doucet, Wimmen’s Comix, Robert Crumb, Joe Matt, Yoshiharu Tsuge, Neeske Alexander, Jennifer Hayden and Joe Sacco), students were asked to draw their self-portrait “in situation” in a Chas Addams’ cartoon from which the upper part had been blanked out.

Left: Noisy Neighbor by Charles Addams, The New Yorker, circa 1950. Right: edited version provided to the students.​
Self-portrait by student Gam.


Students were asked to write down 10 memories, 10 crucial moments -positive or negative- that still impact/haunt/enlight their lives up to this day. I discussed individually with each student to know which memory he/she is eager and confortable adapting into a comics narrative [narrative/graphic potential]. Two memories are sometimes related [theme/period/figures] and were selected to be merged into one narrative. This list/thematic approach comes from Tom Hart‘s guide The Art of the Graphic Memoir (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018). Numerous references and resources were borrowed from his useful book.


We explored, among others, the work of German artist Charlotte Salomon and her series of nearly 800 goauches Life? Or Theatre? produced between 1940 and 1942.


Each student was asked to develop -at home and in written form- his/her selected memory over an A4 page. In class, we analyzed Chris Ware’s short comics I Guess [click on link for full story] in which the written text [the sensitive memories of a child] is imposed -seemingly arbritrarily- in the captions and speech/thought balloons of a six-page Golden-Age-style superhero adventure. However, beyond the “disjunctive form of verbal/visual interplay”, some words or sentences seem to echo drawn elements and to form a braiding of motifs; Chris Ware plays here with the fact that comics readers are drawn to look for meaning in the interaction of the pictorial and the linguistic.

After the analysis of I Guess, students were asked to compose a graphic narrative using the same concept by simply imposing the text of their ‘selected and extended memory’ [A4 page] in the emptied captions and speech balloons from three pages of French cartoonist Xavier Mussat’s autobiographic comics Sainte Famille. The latter book was selected as Xavier Mussat extensively plays with visual metaphors and allegories and because these could become generative of unexpected and accidental resonances with my students’ written memories.

Page 1/3 of student G’s autobiographic text laid down over Xavier Mussat’s comics pages.
Page 2/3 of student G’s autobiographic text laid down over Xavier Mussat’s comics pages.
Page 3/3 of student G’s autobiographic text laid down over Xavier Mussat’s comics pages.
Page 1/3 of student Dear’s autobiographic text laid down over Xavier Mussat’s comics pages.
Page 2/3 of student Dear’s autobiographic text laid down over Xavier Mussat’s comics pages.
Page 3/3 of student Dear’s autobiographic text laid down over Xavier Mussat’s comics pages.


In order to further explore the memory selected by each student, I asked them rewrite their text but as if written by their younger self -in a personal diary- at the age they were when the chosen event took place. The text was to be written on black and white photocopies of some pages from French-Canadian cartoonist Julie Delporte‘s pencil-color and organic diary Journal (Koyama Press, 2013).

The following pages show student G’s memories [to be compared with her version on Xavier Mussat’s pages above], written down as a personal diary, along with Julie Delporte’s drawings on which G added watercolor.

Text and watercolor by student G over drawings by Julie Delporte’s Journal.

The objective of the “text substitution” and “different tone” assignments is to lead the students -without prior art training- to get a sense of the graphic potential of their stories as a comics narrative, to consider the use of visual metaphors, allegories and motifs, as well as the narrative use of color and ‘voices’, and to trigger new and unexpected (and maybe forgotten) elements to feed their narrative through additional layers.


Now that students have been drawing in their daily graphic diary for a few weeks, and that they have played with their written texts in relation to pictures through various substitutions, they were asked to draw their first comics (in the classroom). The assignment is to draw a comics over 4 pages with imposed regular grids, and with an imposed speech balloon (containing the sentence: “Wait! Stop, younger version of me!”) in the third panel of the first page. The balloon was borrowed from American cartoonist Jess Fink’ sci-fi graphic memoir We Can Fix It! (Top Shelf, 2013) where the author goes back in time with a time machine to warn her younger self of -and thus try to avoid- mistakes she made in her past. Students were asked to write such a meeting with their younger selves.

Student Paint meets her younger self, pages 1 and 2 (out of 4).
Student Paint meets her younger self, pages 3 and 4 (out of 4).

Student Por meets her younger self, pages 1 and 2 (out of 4).
Student Por meets her younger self, pages 3 and 4 (out of 4).

“Like how does something happen, and… how does it reverberate through time? And that act of memory is important, and comics are great for memory. Like even when you have a short comic, like a three-panel comic, you’ve got a past, a present and a future as soon as you look at those three boxes. And that allows you to reflect and compare times.”

Art Spiegelman, in: Conan, N. (2011). MetaMaus: The Story Behind Spiegelman’s Classic; radio interview, Oct 5.


We explored the interplay of Time, Space and Memory in comics narratives by Richard McGuire, Lilli Carré, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons & Rick Veitch, Frank Miller, Kevin Huizenga, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Matt Madden, Nick Sousanis and Kiriko Nananan.


On February 03, we were honoured to welcome French cartoonist Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine as a guest. We talked time, space, the fabric/material of memory and comics art in his creative process from his autobiographical comics La chair des pommes (ego comme x) to his Cambodia-set La colline empoisonnée  (Futuropolis) and his ongoing project; and of the seminal importance of (his) sketchbooks. More pictures on this dedicated post.

Guest talk with French cartoonist Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine, here discussing the importance of his sketchbooks in his creative process.


Based on works by Chris Ware and ideas borrowed from the previous lecture and Freddy’s talk, students were asked to map their memory on an A3 page, adding photographs of themselves, of related places and characters, and of artworks (posters, paintings, quotes…) echoing the emotions they experienced during the ‘life-changing’ event they will tell in comics form as their final project.

A lifetime: example of non-linear storytelling by Chris Ware.
Assignment brief.

Student Frongki’s memory tree.


Students were asked to form 10 groups and to read and discuss 10 challenging non-fiction graphic novels [and zines] by introducing their classmates to remarkable features (technique, narrative voice, topic, layouts..). The oral presentations were held online, due the Covid outbreak. The books I proposed them to tackle were: Les Têtards (and zines) by Pascal Matthey and Badaboom Twist (and other zines) by David Libens, Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi, Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto, Becoming Unbecoming by Una, Piero by Edmond Baudoin, Daddy’s Girl by Debbie Drechler, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow and The End by Anders Nilsen, and Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart. Diversity of topics, techniques, origins informed my selection to provide students with a large array of references and approaches.


The composition of comics essays in small groups was originally considered as an assignment during the semester. Sadly, due the Covid outbreak, group projects were canceled at midterm. As we weren’t yet aware of that fact, one early lecture was dedicated on [non-fiction] comics essay composition; I explained the process of creating a comics essay based on a two-pager I wrote for a special issue of KaiHuaRoh magazine with art by Ployjaploen “Bamie” Paopanlerd. I went through the various stages of composition, from the first idea [informed by numeorus influences] to thumbnailing and other schaffoldings leading to a clear non-linear narrative (with much help from the artist).


As for examples, a useful reference was Rob Stolzer‘s students work from his Graphic Narration class.

After reading the students ‘memory trees’, I suggested to each student various approaches, comics references or motifs/connections worth exploring before adapting his/her selected memory into a comics narrative.


The autobiographic comics composed by the students will be published in an upcoming post! [Their final and individual comics projects weren’t limited in size, length or technique; each student had to pick the best fitted format to convey his/her autobiographic narrative]. More soon!

Because it’s sweet… Thanks mademoiselle Plai!

One thought on “Non-Fiction Comics Composition Course [part 1/2]

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