BA (Hons) Comics, Graphic Novels and Sequential Art at Teesside University

Earlier this year I worked with Teesside University to develop a brand new degree course devoted entirely to comics and sequential art. It's one of the best things I've ever been involved with, and I wish this course had existed when I left school because it's going to be amazing. If you think I'm overselling it, read on...

Mick Stockton from the University contacted me about this wonderful course he wanted to put together and we discussed how it could work. We wanted to create a unique course that would give students everything they needed to understand, create and work in comics as well as fulfilling academic requirements for a degree.
We put together a steering committee to help guide the course development and also so that we could get a good mix of opinions and views from various academics and industry professionals.
I worked with Dr. David Jones to create the content of the course. We had plenty of ideas about what we wanted to do and David helped me to put it into the correct framework for academic study and accreditation. Our steering group, which included Suzy Varty, Paul Gravett, Mary and Bryan Talbot, Sara Gibbeson, Jason Kingsley and Alan Brown, read through our proposals and gave us feedback as needed.

I took a Jeet Kune Do approach to building the course structure:
-Learn the rules
- Experiment
-Use what works for you.
The first year gives students a strong basis in the history, theory, language and application of comics and sequential art. The second year pushes students to experiment and test the boundaries of what is possible. The third year allows students to explore their own visual voice and develop their style.
From this basic premise we built up an overall plan and then worked on the individual modules to make sure there was a clear progression and path of advancement through the course.

Some things that were important to us:

  Do you need a degree to make comics? Many people wander in to the industry with no academic background and it is possible to make it without any formal training. With the cost of education increasing, particularly in the U.S., many people are reluctant to pursue further education.
  I gathered up some information from industry professionals regarding their thoughts on higher education and the value of a degree. Luckily, editor Sarah Gaydos had recently posed a similar question and she was able to share with me the valuable feedback she'd received. Some interesting points in favour of further education were raised.
Presenting things in the standard format for a course (essays, dissertations, critiques) was a useful learning tool and often helped people with presentations and research in their jobs. Meeting other people in your field, finding peers and working with other students also helped people with networking, finding opportunities, forming creative alliances and learning to work collaboratively (which is an important skill in this field.)  A lot of people found that University gave them the time and space to create and experiment, which they wouldn't have had otherwise, helping them to develop a strong style. Many people had discovered styles and genres of comics that they would not have otherwise read, leading them down new paths and giving them a broader view of the medium.
  This feedback was very useful. Initially we were going to have a course which relied solely on sequential art (assignments were in the form of comics instead of essays.) Thanks to the feedback we decided to add in some more formal assignments, including essays and presentations. We made sure there were opportunities for students to work collaboratively on projects. We put an emphasis on self guided study in the later stages so students would have that time and space to grow. We made sure that students would be exposed to a broad range of comics and sequential arts through the reading list, assignments and visiting lecturers.

  It was very important that we create a course which prepared students for the workplace. Teesside has a good reputation for delivering courses which are industry focused, helping students to find work through placements and encouraging entrepreneurial endeavors.  We're working with publishers, editors and freelancers to develop opportunities for students. Modules and assessments include industry standard briefs and live briefs. Networking, publishing and exhibition opportunities are available. The course covers things that creators and freelancers need to know such as business practices and legal issues. We're also including as many aspects of the industry as we can so that students can find the path that is best suited to their goals.

  David wanted a political aspect to the course that would challenge students and encourage them to develop their own view. Comics have a rich history of political content and are a wonderful medium for expressing your viewpoint, so I felt that this was a very important element to the course. We developed some great modules to engage students and get them thinking and debating. It will also insure that students are aware of contemporary concerns in the world of comics and have a good understanding of these issues.

Lifelong learning:
  I hope that the course encourages students to question things, research, develop, explore and continue to learn well beyond what we've set out for them. Comics is an ever evolving medium, with a huge range of styles, genres, practices and markets. There are many applications of sequential art beyond comics. There are so many great artists, writers, colorists, letterers, editors and publishers out there with experience and ideas to share (thanks YouTube for making that easier). This course gives students the tools, basis and contacts to continue to learn and grow.

  Making comics is laborious and at times it can be tough, even heart breaking. You often read success stories of artists or writers who were 'discovered' with very little effort on their part, but the truth is that those stories are incredibly rare. For any one project you pick up you may have been rejected from a hundred others. Your career trajectory may be more of a meandering incline than a meteoric rise. But having a passion for the medium and truly loving what you do will get you through anything. It helps you bounce back. It gives you an attitude and an outlook that makes you unstoppable. So what I hope most of all is that this course can ignite or kindle that passion in every student.

And there you have it! Was I overselling it? I don't think so. I think this will be a wonderful, challenging, engaging course. I can't wait to see what our students produce.


  1. Hi Leonie, congratulations on forging the new course! [Followed the link here from Down The Tubes.] Are you going to be teaching on the BA?

    There's a small but burgeoning number of such courses around the UK, and there's an opportunity to share pedagogy and compare approaches...

    I teach a postgraduate module called Writing Graphic Fiction at Edinburgh Napier University, where students from the MA Creative Writing and MA Screenwriting programmes learn how to and then write scripts for comics and graphic novels.


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