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Kids Draw Comics, But It's Not Child's Play

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: Comic books often get a bad rap. Some see them as juvenile and primitive, but a group of Michigan cartoonists see them as a sophisticated art form and they're promoting comics as a valuable educational tool for kids, especially those who are struggling. Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris reports.

KYLE NORRIS: At the Northfield District Library, 30 miles west of Detroit, cartoonist Jerzy Drozd is whizzing around a room full of sixth and seventh graders. He asked them what they would do if they were in a grocery store and they wanted to get their parents' attention.

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JERZY DROZD: You get big, right? Look over here - Frosted Cheerios are 50 percent off and if I don't get them I'm just going to die, right? Yeah, you get big because you want to be noticed.

NORRIS: Drozd says that's why panels are different sizes in comics.

DROZD: Space equals emphasis. It means big. It means important. It means notice me.

NORRIS: The class brainstorms a few characters. Betty Boop, Tom from Tom and Jerry. And they devise a simple plot. Drozd then assigns a specific action for each panel.

DROZD: Panel four, surprise moment of the story. Surprise character gets thrown in, Justin Bieber shows up.

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NORRIS: In panel five Justin Bieber and Tom fight for the love of Betty Boop.

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DROZD: Stay with me. Stay with me.

NORRIS: But they make up in panel six and everybody shares a pizza.

DROZD: OK. So here's your challenge - my brilliant artists - choose these six moments, you're going to decide for yourself which moment takes the longest to happen. Is that going to be a big panel or a small panel?

NORRIS: Drozd says this kind of thinking about space and the way the story is laid out on the page is sophisticated.

DROZD: You have to learn about how to get your audience to make inferences about the characters - what you show, what you don't show. It's not just what they say. It's not just what's in the written word. How a character's body language works. The - a little turn of the lip, a certain kind of smile that communicates volumes of information.

NORRIS: Drozd is teaching these skills to kids in Michigan towns where people are struggling. Comic writer Dan Mishkin is helping Drozd with the tour. He says creating comics can help kids having a rough time because it gives them a sense of control and power over their own stories, as opposed to doing something like, say, bullying other kids.

DAN MISHKIN: Telling your story in this narrative form that you actually are capable of working in is kind of easier to do and feel like you've accomplished something.

NORRIS: And all you need is some paper and a 25-cent pencil.

Seventh grader Claire Ramsden(ph) cracks open a thick sketchbook filled with page after page of her artwork. She says she creates a new character about every two days. Ramsden's latest invention has magical powers and is named Scream.

CLAIRE RAMSDEN: She's mainly quiet. She never shows her eyes or her hands. She's just kind of back there in the background.

NORRIS: Ramsden says she's proud of the stuff she draws. And Jerzy Drozd says that's what his workshop is all about - helping kids realize they can tell their stories quite elegantly with pictures.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris.

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.