I’m not sure when it happened exactly: I discovered the (incredible) Pittsburgh comics scene and its value for kids. This was not something I set out to find. I was really just going about my business: I run Literary Arts Boom, a creative writing laboratory that aims to build a culture of reading and writing with Pittsburgh youth. Our Mad Scientist theme encourages kids to explore, experiment, and invent. Mentorship and creativity inspire students to pursue their interests, find their voices, and tell their stories.

The LAB operates from Assemble, a community space for arts and technology. Throughout the school year, Assemble hosted Learning Parties at which a number of experts packed into a room to create a science fair type event focused on a theme like planets or sound. The LAB always led an activity station. After a few of these events, I recognized that writing could be really intimidating. There’s that blank piece of paper, unblinking, waiting for words. It reeks of homework to a lot of kids.

Young student works on a comic at the LAB's Comics Club / Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

So I began incorporating more visual elements and conversation into our activities. LAB volunteers and I combined drawing, listening, and sharing with the writing prompts we’d already planned. The kids seemed to stick around our table more than before. We carried this over to our Homework Help sessions that always began with ten minutes of writing.  We saw kids more willingly put pencil to paper when drawing was an option. I was still resistant though. A pesky voice in my head kept saying, “Ok, enough drawing. Time to write now.”

In the meantime, I met a lot of comic artists and began to see that comics were a language all their own – a visual language. As somebody who began to learn Spanish when I was in sixth grade, I know that learning one foreign language prepares the mind for learning others. So I got really excited about how visual language could prime students for written language. Comics engage reluctant readers and writers because they mix images and words, alleviating the pressure some kids feel to get through an entire page of text. Comics allow a child to look and linger.

Lucky for me, Nina Barbuto, the director and founder of Assemble, had taught comics workshops at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Together, we created Comics Club. The first group of kids met one day a week throughout October 2012. The LAB published a collection of their work. A digital version can be viewed here.

In the spring we expanded Comics Club to be an 8-week series. The participants were a wild bunch that became fast friends. They learned about storytelling and created their own characters, setting, and plot. They worked together and independently. They selected favorite pieces from their portfolios for our next publication. We’re about to send their Cosmic Comics Club collection to print.

Underlying our comics workshops is the notion that images can speak and words can illustrate. We plan to really dig into these concepts during Comics Club Camp, which is coming right up. For five full days, beginning on Aug. 5, campers will go through the entire process of creating their own comic from idea-generation to publication. The cost is $130 for the week, with after-camp care available for an additional $50. We don’t want to turn anybody away though, so scholarships are available. Kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch should contact us via email or phone, at 412-906-9522. More details and registration can be found on our EventBrite.