Improvising Artists Drawn To Comic Jam

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When you think about improvisation you might think of comedy or jazz but not drawing comics. A little comic book shop in Dearborn, Mich., has an event it calls Comic Jam, where cartoonists take turns drawing panels in a comic strip on the fly.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to hear now about artists who typically craft their creations solo, teaming up and improvising. A little comic book shop in Dearborn, Michigan has an event it calls Comic Jam, where cartoonists take turns drawing panels in a comic strip.

Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris reports on what one artist calls a relay race on paper.

KYLE NORRIS: There's be-bop on the stereo at Green Brain Comics. And people are chit-chatting and munching on cheese and crackers and those tiny little grapes.

(Soundbite of conversations)

NORRIS: On some tables at the back of the store are blank pieces of paper. They're framed with nine little boxes or panels. It kind of looks like the tic-tac-toe format with the lines drawn-in around the edges. And on every piece of paper a picture has been pasted into one of the nine panels.

Cartoonist Matt Feazell has got a sheet of paper with a picture of the Yellow Kid, an old comic-strip character from the 1800s.

Mr. MATT FEAZELL (Cartoonist): Well, I got a picture of the Yellow Kid. He's sitting at a table with a seltzer bottle on it, and there's a guy in a green hat looking in the window at him. And there's a parrot and a black cat.

NORRIS: Feazell knows what he wants to draw right off the bat.

Mr. FEAZELL: So there's a lot of stuff here that could happen after this first panel. I'm going to draw the cat jumping up on the table and knocking over the seltzer bottle.

NORRIS: We are at a Comic Jam. It's similar to the writing exercise known as an Exquisite Corpse. In this case, an artist draws one panel, then they pass it to someone who draws another panel, and so forth. The result is an entire comic strip, created by eight artists.

Eventually someone hands the paper to Suzanne Baumann.

Ms. SUZANNE BAUMANN (Cartoonist): And now I've got to decide what goes up next. Hmm.

NORRIS: Baumann scans the original Yellow Kid panel for clues. There's some cool vintage furniture in the picture that she likes, and a bottle of booze.

Ms. BAUMANN: Now that I see this parrot that's on the chair, I'm thinking maybe the parrot should want that cigar.

NORRIS: It's pretty easy to see how an idea in one panel flows into the next, as the comic strip develops. But there are no rules at these jams. And that's part of the thrill, says artist Paul Sizer.

Mr. PAUL SIZER (Cartoonist): Sometimes people will lay down a previous panel to you with the intent of derailing you immediately. And so it's like, you know, see if you can recover from this. And you're like, oh, I'll take your challenge and I throw this at you.

NORRIS: Store co-owner Dan Merritt says imagination is what brings comics to life; even named his store Green Brain Comics because he says the magic of comics happens in a very intimate place - our heads.

DAN MERRITT (Co-Owner, Green Brain Comics): It doesn't play out necessarily in front you like a movie does. It's a series of images that are juxtaposed to show you a story evolve. But the real evolution of the story is in your brain. It really gives you the power to figure out what happens between the panels.

NORRIS: But for the artists at the Comic Jam, collaborating like this is a way to step outside that mental process and to step into something more physical and active. As artist Paul Sizer said, these Comics Jams are like jumping jacks for your brain.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris.

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