I was recently invited to participate in a series of workshops with teens from at-risk populations here in Angoulême, France. The workshops are based on Raymond Queneau‘s Exercises in Style and my own 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (99 Exercices de style in the French edition).
My colleague and friend Etienne Lécroart, who has the distinction of being the only cartoonist (and Oubapian) in Oulipo, will do a second workshop in March and then the two of us will work together for a final, all-day session, part of which will take place at the Musée de la Bande Dessinée. There are 80 students from two collèges—which is the French equivalent of junior high—on the outskirts of Angoulême. These schools are in areas with a lot of working families and immigrants and they lack the resources of private schools or even public schools in more well-off areas.
Etienne and I act more like counselors than teachers for this project. It’s really the teachers from the two schools who worked their butts off to come up with engaging projects that would connect their subjects (math, French, English, art) with the theme of “Exercises in Style” and, more generally, the use of constraints, mathematical rules, and word games to create texts and drawings.
The first session started bright and early. I got up in front of a group of 80 students, their teachers, their principle, the regional education inspector who set up this event, and even a representative from the local prefecture. The kids were supposed to have questions for me—in fact many had them written down—but they all completely froze up at the prospect of talking to a “real author” in front of their classmates, teachers, and 40 other kids they were meeting for the first time! No problem, I knew that was exactly what was going to happen (even grown-ups do it, kids!) and managed to talk about myself, comics, and New York until I got a few shy responses and questions from our audience.
After my opening remarks, a quick snack decorated by oversize copies of panels from my book. Very nice, I think every school dining room should do this.
The Ministry of Education had provided copies for all the students of my book, Queneau’s, and Etienne’s collection of mathematics-based constrained comics, Comptes et Décomptes. It was cool and a little surreal to walk into a classroom and find all these kids reading experimental comics.
The math teachers from both schools teamed up for the day. One collège hosted this time and the other one will host Etienne and the other school in March.
Etienne did a comic where each panel has the same number of words and drawn objects as its corresponding number in pi. So: panel one has three words and three drawings; panel two has one word and one drawing; panel three as four words and drawings, and so on. Not wanting to simply repeat Etienne’s constraint, the math teachers had the students work on the same principle but using the value of the golden ratio. I pointed out that you could write a text or make drawings relating to Greek architecture, sea shells and other shapes that express this ratio (much as Etienne did in his story “Trois Fois Hellás,” which tells the story of a Greek vacation gone awry).
Meanwhile, the French teachers had the students writing acrostics, palindromes, and other word games. I didn’t get any pictures of the English/art class but they were translating pages of mine back into English, then drawing them as comics in the style of one of three American artists (a theme in art class this semester): Keith Haring, Niki St. Phalle (the teachers weren’t aware that she was once married to Oulipian Harry Mathews) or Jackson Pollock. I was skeptical of making a comic from a Pollock painting but sure enough one of the students realized he could use more and more drips in each panel to represent the growing confusion of the main character. Brilliant.
In another classroom, students are asked to make comics where superheroes have banal adventures like missing the bus or running out of hot water mid-shower. The students all contributed short anecdotes like this that could be transformed and repurposed throughout the workshop. I proposed the ides of grouping the final pieces together based on which texts they riff on but we’ll see what kind of shape everything is in at the end of the series.
I’m more used to teaching in art schools or at least with older teens so this is a real change of pace for me. It’s very gratifying to play a small part in all of this and to peak over kids’ shoulders with the occasional word of advice or encouragement as they surprise themselves with their own ingenuity in text and image.