Since 2008, the Stanford Graphic Novel Project—part of the creative writing program at Stanford University—has produced a book-length graphic novel per session, a total of three full-length titles created by a staff of writers, artists and production workers who are actually students enrolled in the class to learn the craft of creating serious nonfiction comics.

The Stanford Graphic Novel Project is headed by senior lecturers Adam Johnson and Tom Kealy, along with journalism fellow Dan Archer, who joined for its second title to oversee the art production. This year the project published, Pika Don, an extraordinary first-hand account of the aftermath of nuclear explosions by the late Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a Japanese engineer during World War II who somehow managed to witness and survive both the Nagasaki and Hiroshima Atomic bombs.

The first book to come out of the SGNP in 2008 was Shake Girl, detailing the life of a Cambodian girl whose family was torn apart by the genocide and who eventually becomes the kept woman of a corrupt public official, a karaoke star and finally the victim of a vicious acid attack. Published in 2009, Virunga is the second book and told the story of the first female park ranger in Colonga National Park in the Congo, who attempted to save gorillas during a civil war.

Each of these books is based on a true story that students in the project must find, research and decide among themselves whether to turn it into a book. That process plays a strong part in Johnson’s central philosophy about the responsibility of good storytelling—those with resources like Stanford students have a duty to direct their efforts toward stories that matter. Johnson said that social justice is very much an element in the class.

“If you are a good storyteller you have a duty to tell the story of others who for whatever reason can’t tell a story,” Johnson said. “People who have been through traumatic experiences in their lives are often the least able to speak of their experiences, and they’re the ones we need to hear from the most.”

The program began when Johnson—who is also a novelist and freelance writer—began to ask his creative writing students to create “graphic interpretations” of the stories they were working on. He later brought graphic novels into the learning mix, after realizing the massive shift in the form from the typical genre topics to serious non-fiction works, including oral histories and memoirs. Johnson found that they were perfect maps for teaching the mechanics of basic storytelling.

“We can see very clearly the architecture of them,” he said. “The scene selection, chapterization, how characters are introduced, what’s shown and what’s withheld, how the characters are managed scene by scene, how many are onstage, how does the author find his or her exit points, what are the big dramatic moments, how time for interior access is given—all these things I am trying to teach them is right there. It is there visually or it’s not. It turned into a great teaching tool.”

Johnson said the creative writing department was surprisingly open to the idea— after all, while comics classes emphasizing drawing already exist, writing programs emphasizing comics are an unknown quantity. He notes that the class turned out to be a very popular addition to the school’s offerings, particularly among female students, which he partly attributes to the popularity of manga, but also finds it representative of the general reading and writing habits of America.

Finding Stories and Collaborating

The first class had 16 students, the second 18 and the most recent had 13, all splitting up the production duties according to interest and talent. It takes about three weeks for the group to find and decide on a story, the final result of a process involving much research and debate. It’s through this collaborative effort that the major lessons of the class beyond the tangible skills are learned—and it’s how untapped strengths are realized and honed. Sarah Snow was one of the co-writers on last year’s Pika Don, but she took away much more than simply her experience as a scripter.

“I think the most important lesson I gained from this experience was learning to work in a team environment,” she said. “I worked with the editing and production teams as well. I learned the process of creating a graphic novel, and the formatting required to send it to a printer. I learned how to check the artwork for inconsistencies, and the language used to convey this to the graphic artists for corrections.”

Johnson said that classes can get contentious trying to decide on the story they will publish. At one point in the process the story behind Shake Girl was rivaled by the experiences of soldier blogging from Iraq and the life of Ishi, the last paleolithic Native American in California. The Virunga narrative was almost displaced by a story about a transgendered nun and violence in Chiapas.

He looks for stories that are, “compact, easy to adapt, that do not invade anyone’s privacy, and that also haven’t been really told well,” he said. “We want to find stories that haven’t come to people’s attention.”

After choosing the story, Dan Archer works with the illustrators to get a visual sense of the characters—he has to train them to approach the work with similar styles, so the complete book looks uniform. Kealy starts the students doing necessary visual research, looking up designs for period aircraft, Japanese propaganda, maps and more.

Their intent is to make, “the students aware that they had full control over all artistic choices in every panel,” Archer said. “In effect I wanted to create my own team of directors, set designers and choreographers. Which was a tall order, given the high standard of draftsmanship that conveying all of these qualities required.” Snow said, “I didn't learn how to draw, but Dan Archer insists that anybody is capable of drawing if they practice.”

Johnson then leads the student-writers through the consideration of the characters, their worldview, their motivations and what needed to be shown in the story. The writing team then collaborates on the first chapter and passes that along to thumbnailers, who storyboard everything for the illustrators, and include crucial notes for consistency between the different artists work on different pages. In the weeks that follow, the writers work on further chapters and the process repeats itself until it is done and the graphic novel is complete. Having the team members follow through their tasks efficiently and on schedule is crucial.

“Increasing the students' capacity and ability for intensive illustration work is always a challenge,” Archer said. “We really make sure that all students understand what an undertaking they're getting themselves into, and what is to be expected of them, then they have to produce a minimum number of thumbnailed or finished pages.”

“You think you know what you’re getting into when you join,” said Snow. “I joined to create a graphic novel. What I didn't realize was that I would become a part of a team that would bond and behave as a family. Collaborative creativity can be exciting and frustrating at the same time. It's not an easy process, and often it can be painstakingly slow. I recall several instances where we spent hours working on one or two sentences.”

Johnson contends that teaching collaboration is crucial to honing editorial skills both in regard to one’s own work as well as others. “You have to recognize that other people’s ideas are much better than your own, as much as you love them,” he said. “Some part of the collaboration is trusting others and I’m surprised by how much I learned and how much my sense of storytelling has been broadened by seeing other people make moves and decisions, take chances that I wouldn’t have taken. I definitely learn a great deal as a teacher.”

Meanwhile Archer had a dual purpose. One was to see that students leave with the tools to turn graphic novels concepts into reality; but the other was to demystify not only drawing, but the entire comics profession as a whole, by making it plain that it’s mostly about determination and hard work.

“I wanted to dispel the magic and mythos surrounding the cartooning profession and show them that, like so many creative projects, their success and skill level is dictated by their willingness to practice and commit themselves to long hours at the drawing board,” Archer said. “In a broader sense, they will leave as better project managers, able to collaborate in a creative environment, with an in-depth knowledge of all the processes that go into making a graphic novel, from brainstorming through to laying out the final PDF.”

The Stanford Graphic Novel Project is noncommercial and is supported by on-campus arts grants. It self-publishes its titles and copies are given away to scholars, comics artists, librarians, educators and others. But Johnson said the possibility of aligning itself with a publisher is not out of the question—Shake Girl almost had a publisher but the deal fell through due to rights issues that, being new to the process, Johnson said the program wasn’t prepared to tackle. However, there are several publishers currently interested in bringing Pikadon to a wider audience and the project is better prepared this time around.

“If a publisher does acquire one of our graphic novels, all the money will go to either a charity or a Stanford scholarship, as we, as teachers, can't profit from student work,” Johnson said. “If Pikadon is published [conventionally], we'll probably name one of the major Japanese peace foundations as a recipient for the royalties.”

What Johnson and his crew learned during the workshop class on creating graphic novels really a covers an entire realm of real world creativity that the students will encounter in whatever creative business they pursue, but especially visual storytelling forms. In this way, the class might be more preparatory for film and television, or the gaming industry, where works are also created by teams.

Snow is now an intern for filmmaker Roger Corman and she believes that the graphic novel class helped her begin a career in the entertainment industry. It also opened up another area of storytelling that she had not considered and said that it likely will not be the last graphic novel she works on.

“I would suggest this class to any and every student—the graphic novel project is the best class that Stanford has to offer,” she said. “There is a role for anyone in this class whether you can draw, write, or simply be creative. It's a class driven by ideas and passion, and teamwork. This class is not about one person coming in and doing their own project, it's about coming in finding a project everyone can agree on and devoting yourself to it entirely.”