Improvisation Games for Comics Writers and Illustrators

by Avery J. Cohen

The goal of these exercises is to create for writers and illustrators a structured environment in which they may develop their craft. These games are creative and may even be competitive. The structure allows artists to experiment with a variety of methods of collaboration. I am most interested in very short subjects that rely on commonplace situations and stock characters -- the standard bag-of-tricks used by improvisation theater.

I have so far come up with four experimental Improvisation Games for Comic Book Writers and Illustrators. These games fall into two categories: Words and Pictures games and Tag Team games.

The exercises described here are two Words and Pictures games -- "Birds of a Feather", and "Elevator" along with two Tag Team games, a briefly described one called "Hot Potato" and another, more complex variety, called "Subway Map".

Subway Map was first developed with my Better Living Through Science friends: Ken Small, Peter Lynn, and Rich Keller.

"Words and Pictures" Games

The structure, or "rules" of "Words and Pictures" Games will sound familiar immediately. The basic idea is that Words change the meaning of Pictures and vice-versa. The challenge of the game is that the basic framework never changes.

Here's my first draft of the "rules":

1) Each game is identified by a name and has a unique, but generalized script. The script is generalized so that this same "script" could be illustrated by various artists and it would already have inherently different meaning - drawn cartoony or noir, playing with gender or age differences, etc. A clever illustrator can work wonders with pacing. Add the interpretations of the scripters and you could have nearly infinite variations on the story, but retaining the basic structure of that particular game (examples are described below as "Birds of a Feather" or "Elevator").
2) Each time the game is played, there is a "Moderator", a single "Illustrator", and a group of "Writers".
3) The Moderator may be the Illustrator or one of the writers or another resource (a person or an automated facility at a website). The Moderator is responsiblit for setting the deadlines and means of communication and exchange, and for publishing the results.
4) The illustrator interprets the generalized script provided for that game and gives a copy of the wordless illustrations to the Moderator.
5) The Moderator distributes the wordless illustration to the writers and sets the deadline date. The Moderator also identifies the means, time, and date for the "unveiling" of the game's results. This might be an issue of an APA, a minicomic, a web site or a "Chat" session so that we could get feedback. We would ask that participants keep their submissions a "secret" until the "unveiling".
6) The Game Moderator (along with the participants) will determine if there will be prizes and how the winner will be determined.
7) The Writer participants add words to the illustrated comic strip. The rules do NOT prevent the scripters from altering the artwork.
8) The Writer participants return the scripted stories to the Moderator. The Moderator coordinates "unveiling" activities.

I have developed two generalized scripts, a one-page and two-page script. The one-page game is called "Birds of a Feather". The other is called "Elevator".

Birds of a feather

This concept comes from my participation in an Amateur Press Association, as well as many on-line communities. The framework is simple, a one-page conversation. The idea behind this exercise is to present a simple communication transaction in a one-page format: Collaboration/Discussion, Action, Feedback. Symbolically, this is the essence of APA participation.

The generalized description of the storyline for "Birds of a Feather":

Panels 1-3: Two characters - A and B -- are having a discussion.
Panel 4: B is leaving the discussion to go do something.
Panel 5: The remaining character, A, is watching the other character -- who is off panel -- doing something. The illustrator should feel free to provide some additional action or expression for A in this panel.
Panel 6: A delivering a comment (to the returning B, or to the audience, or to a third character) on the action observed.

The example presented, originally from First Draft APA uses birds on a wire. By using birds, the illustrator has freed the writer from the limitations of context. The writer's imagination can run free, using the birds as literal or metaphorical vehicles for storytelling. The results presented thus far in First Draft have been thrillingly successful. They show that, using this illustration, an almost infinite variety of tales can be told.

However, by using a generalized script, the exercise is open to an equally infinite number of illustrative variations. The most obvious variables are: Setting, Character, and Tone.

  • Two guys at a bar. Having a heated argument.
  • Two guys at a bar, one is speaking in earnest, the other is laughing. Laughing guy leaves. Earnest is laughing in the last panel.
  • A guy and a girl at a bar. Which one do you think leaves? Ok, then, switch it.
  • Two girls at a mall. Or a mother and daughter in a department store.

    In the above examples, the illustrator challenges the writer -- "break down the readers' expectations, change the meaning of my pictures." The clever illustrator may include props or sight gags that add to the story. Or she may play with pacing and time.

    And at some other level, is the variability that each member of the audience brings to her interpretation of what she reads!


    I have alluded to the inspiration that Improvisation Theater has provided for these exercises. This game draws directly from that old Improv stand-by, "Two People Stuck in an Elevator".

    Elevator is a two-page format, which gives the artists more room to stretch out and develop characters.

    The generalized script for the improvisation game of Elevator is as follows. The illustrator may feel free to vary the number of panels or specifics about incidents.

    Panel 1: Person A is entering an elevator, another person, B, is already there.
    Panel 2: One of the characters is speaking to the other, and is being ignored.
    Panel 3: A and B are looking up at the elevator numbers.
    Panel 4: A and B react as the elevator suddenly stops.
    Panel 5: one is nervous, the other is calm. The nervous one is talking.
    Panel 6: Both characters are talking in this panel.
    Panel 1: More talk, perhaps both are worked-up now, but the body language is shifting -- the one that was calm is getting more upset, the other one is calming down.
    Panel 2: Now the roles have shifted, it's up to the illustrator - both may be panicked, the nervous one is calmer and the calm one is hysterical, or both may be calm.
    Panel 3: The lights have gone out. Eyes in a black background. It's up to the artist to determine how expressive the eyes are in this scene.
    Panel 4: The lights are still out. Eyes in a black background.
    Panel 5: The lights are back on. The characters eye each other nervously.
    Panel 6: One character leaving the elevator, the other standing in the corner of the elevator watching him/her go. Position mouths so that either one might be talking or might not be talking.

    Again, the "generalized script" is intentionally vague, but is structured enough that comparisons can be made between various interpretations.

    Tag Teams and Relay Races

    Two concepts:

    Relay Races, where a "baton" is passed from story to story. The "baton" could be pretty much anything (a gun, a briefcase full of money, or a character, such as a small child or a mischevious gremlin).

    Tag Teams, would be a category of game where one or more characters continue from part-to-part.

    In addition to the traditional "jam" style comic book, where a different artist picks up the narrative from where the last panel ended (including Cliffhanger style stories, where each person leaves off with a cliffhanger), it is possible to use "crossovers" as a way to create "linked" stories. The Subway Map game provides a framework for the "crossover" approach.

    Relay Races

    Here's my first draft of the "rules" for Relay Races:

    1) Each game is identified by a name. Each game and has a unique "baton" that is passed from one "episode" to another. The ending of the game may be predetermined by the players, or may be a suprise that is decided by the the moderator or by vote.
    2) Each time the game is played, there is a "Moderator", and a group of "Artists" who provide panels or pages. The contribution is done in round-robin fashion, with each contribution being an "episode".
    3) The Moderator may be one of the players or another resource (a person or an automated facility at a website). The moderator facilitates agreement to the "Ground Rules" for this specific game. This includes the deadlines for submitting episodes, the means of communication and exchange, and responsiblity for publishing the results.
    4) The Moderator solicits players and determines the order of play. Players may play once each, or may go around the roster several times before the "ending" is reached. The moderator determines if players will have access to the entire story up to their "turn", or if they will only see the first and most recent "episodes".
    5) The Moderator distributes the completed illustrations to the writers and sets the deadline for each contribution. The Moderator also identifies the means, time, and date for the "unveiling" of the game's results. This might be an issue of an APA, a minicomic, a web site or a "Chat" session so that we could get feedback.
    6) The Game Moderator (along with the participants) will determine if there will be prizes and how the winner will be determined.
    7) Each participant add an episode to the illustrated story in turn.

    Hot Potato

    Hot Potato is a cartoon-action Relay Race where the "baton" is an Acme-issue bomb with a burning fuse. It's the responsibility of the first artist to light the fuse. Each artist thereafter runs through a gag ending with either a cliffhanger or the bomb getting tossed off-panel, depending on the agreed ground rules. The last person gets to explode (or otherwise dispose of) the bomb. Ground Rules should cover order of play and re-use of characters.

    Baby Carriage

    Another variation, a baby in a baby carriage, rolling downhill...

    Subway Map

    We have named first "Tag Team" style improvisation game "Subway Map". In this game, we agree to have characters from our independently produced stories assembled at a starting point and an ending point. For example, we are starting at 7:30 a.m. at a bus stop and we are ending at 5:00 p.m. at a bar across the street from the bus stop. We will draw the initial and ending scenes "jam-style".

    Between the two scenes, we are to tell our stories. The idea is to have scenes within the stories where characters cross-over and we collaborate or improvise scenes between the characters that advance the plot or otherwise enhance both of the stories. The crossovers create parallel storylines that cross and intersect like a subway map.

    We agreed to some basic ground-rules -- which in our case amounted to an agreement that we will keep our common scenes as part of everyday reality (no "unexplainable phenomenon"). We may use a common font for lettering word balloons and captions. That's about it.

    The primary "structure", of "Subway Map" involves the phased approach to the story development:

    Phase 1: Establish Ground Rules

    Phase 2: Establish Beginning and Ending Situations, or scenes. Specify both time and place. For example, our story starts at 8:30 a.m. at a bus stop in the city and our story ends at 4:30 p.m. at a bar across the street from the bus stop -- the bar is visible in the first scene.

    Phase 3: Describe your character(s) to be used in cross-over situations. Provide a description or outline of your story to lead into the next phase.
    For example:

    Jim Speaking is thirty-five years old. He is a staff manager for the Ehaoah Corporation, where he has been working for the last six years and he can't remember what it is he is supposed to be doing there.

    Nobody seems to directly report to him, and he hasn't spoken directly to his boss in a year-and-a-half. Co-workers stop by and ask him questions with varying degrees of purposefulness, but Jim is never able to get a specific answer regarding what his co-workers are actually doing. Mostly their replies are filled with new-age management buzzwords - from the ridiculous "I'm setting objectives so that I can meet expectations!" to the more specific, but equally ridiculous "I'm defining best-practices parameters for utilizing a supplier-customer paradigm between some of our internal departments."

    This situation has existed for a while, and Jim was happy to take home a steady and comfortable paycheck even as he became less and less connected to his work. Now that Jim's wife is pregnant, Jim is finds himself confronting a lot of existential angst related to his employment situation.

    His pride in his work has dissipated in a haze of "empowerment" and team playing. His creativity has been replaced by cynicism through a series of "corporate initiatives". Not only does Jim feels that he is not a whole person, that he has become a rather flat, dull cartoon of his former self, but he is wondering when his employer will realize that Jim has no real value to the company. The one benefit of his job, its security, is at risk, at the time he values it most.

    Jim has his first job interview in six years this afternoon

    It is a day of nervous introspection for Jim as he tries to convince himself that he has something to offer his potential employer, and he wonders what he will have to offer as a father to his soon-to-be child. In the climatic sequence, Jim's job interview is presented as a fantasy in which he is interviewed for fatherhood by a baby (sitting in a plush leather chair, behind a big wooden desk).

    Phase 4: Negotiate Cross-Over situations. Present situations required for your "plot", work in other people's situations. Jim will then walk a few blocks to his office, a tall (10+ story) modern building nearby.

    For example:

    Here's a preliminary outline for Jim's availability.

    1) Jim will delay going to the office by going in to the grocery store to buy a few pieces of fruit to take to the office. There he can meet up with Peter's character.
    2) Can the Penny Man {character from another story} be at the Grocery Store? I'd like to have Jim cross paths with him early on. Even on the way to the Grocery Store. Does PM buttonhole strangers?
    4) Jim will spend the morning at his office. He often stares out the window overlooking the street. If your character walks in front of the building, we could put links at the top and bottom of the panels, just for kicks.
    5) Jim will go out to lunch, to a local sandwich shop, probably by himself. Maybe with one or two co-workers.
    6) Jim will have to pick up a new shirt after lunch because he spills or gets spilled on.
    7) Jim will return to his office for an hour or so before leaving again.
    8) Jim will take a taxi to his interview, which is a good opportunity for conflict with another character. (And another character could be coming out of the cab for a very brief (one or two panel) three-way cross-over.
    9) If the weather is nice, Jim will walk around a while and decide not to go back to the office (around 3:30).
    10) I'm not sure what he will do then, but he will eventually end up at the bar, where I would like him to have a final talk with Penny Man.
    OK, who wants to meet up or just cross paths?
    Also, I may change this in order to cross paths with your characters!

    Phase Five: Develop your story and collaborate on cross-overs.

    Phase Six: Publish

    We will be publishing the result of this first workshop on the Worldwide Web. We may even publish it in paper form, but the web makes reading and publishing much easier. We can use image mapping or just have links below the images that say "Follow Jim Speaking" and "Follow Ray".

    I'll let you know how it goes.

    Up for a Game?