Collaboration has been a central part of sequential art, comics & cartoons, since their reinvention as a mass Pop media during the heyday of the American Newspaper.
As soon as Comics became a central feature of any self-respecting newspaper artists were hired in bulk to work together in some way or another rapidly producing the daily strips and weekend colour features that helped sell the printed news like nothing else could. Before then most comics had been the result of individual creators, from the innovations of Rodolphe Töpffer to the masterful tabloid full page dreamtrips of Winsor McCay. But in short time assistants and specialization came to the business. Deadlines demanded a division of labour and so writers pencilers inkers letters and colourists were all needed for many syndicated comics. We can assume artists being artists, they would play sometimes. So it’s likely artists did this before it was called “Jamming”.
But, the first time I know of that it was, was in the 60’s in San Francisco, Robert Crumb & the Zap all Stars produced short often non narrative comix together that are the earliest well documented use of the name ‘Comix Jam’.
In the most basic form of Comix Jamming, participants take turns drawing consecutive or random panels, composing spontaneous collaborative stories. Building them one panel at a time, not always in order! In our class, we’ll be using Jams to explore ideas of pacing and different approaches to story.
As the Zap crew pioneered them Jams were free form collaborations in the spirit of Free Jazz Jams. As with Jazz Jams, Comix Jams are only as ‘good’ as the players. So often they are perceived to be creative Circle Jerks by some, that make up for lack of narrative with sheer energy. And it’s true that many bar room Jams do produce a great deal of beer inspired juvenile scatological humor & ranting.
In this mode a comix jam is a creative night out with the gang. They can become strong positive focal points in the social lives of comics communities they are held in – amateurs and professionals alike getting together, building friendships [and feuds] networking, and sharing knowledge. Always useful but especially so in the world of cartooning where the practitioners are by nature of the trade, prone to spend unseemly long hours shut away at work.
But its not all fart jokes and drinks. Some Jams are more about the art and storytelling, rather than blowing off steam and hanging out. They always tape into and lend insights on the mechanics of storytelling, it only takes a modest increase in focus and effort to make it a truly deep learning experience. In this mode a Jam is essentially a constraint-based exercise reminiscent of the Surrealist Exquisite Corpse, or Raymond Queneau’s Oulipo: Workshop for Potential Literature and its subsequent comics arm, Oubapo: Workshop for Potential Comics. T. Motley and Matt Madden are both active creators working with Constraint based comics like that, among many others.
Some of those are collaborative exercises like a Jam, but as you can see from the examples on Motley and Madden’s sites, they don’t have to be. And all are fantastic exercises for exploring the mechanisms of visual story telling. But something a Jam brings uniquely to the table, is the built in opportunity to learn from others. When I first started going to comix jams, I was working for Marvel, and feeling a bit in a rut. Beyond the refreshing social setting, looking at the way so many other cartoonists resolved problems, handled characterization, timed their narrative beats and drew their lines, kicked out the jams i’d come to be stuck by, as a byproduct of trying to produce uniform product for a client on deadline.
Some are more traditional narratives but often the artist will rift on ideas rather than a conventional story in a linear manner. Usually the pages are kept in a pool of work in progress between the artists, and then when complete posted on a wall or printed in a book for all to see when done!
Comix Jams continue to be held all over the world now, and similar gathers like Drink and Draw’s have joined them. The monthly jam in Montreal has a FB page here. You’ll find events in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Quebec City, Prince Edward County Ontario, & St. Johns Newfoundland!
Here’s a selection of Jam Constraints, and across this page, at at the bottom, you will find pages created at events in Montreal while I was hosting,
-JAM Rules and constraints
Freestyle Jam or Impromptu: A traditional comic Jam, where the narrative is started by one artist who draws a panel or page, passing it on to another to continue the narrative by adding the next panel or page, this goes on till the narrative is completed.
Controlled or Orchestrated Jam: One person acts as a conductor or editor, as each panel is finished, the conductor decides (based on what the last participant added to the narrative) who should add the next panel. Ideally the conductor would be someone with fairly extensive knowledge of the artists/writers involved and their work, allowing them to anticipate what sort of tone or direction the narrative will be taken and choose accordingly. An Orchestrated jam is a good way to avoid the more scatological tendencies of many Jams if that is your desire. The conductor can set boundaries, limitations and themes that participants must work within, and if a panel fails to follow the guides it’s reasonable in an Orchestrated jam to cut the panel to preserve the intent and Integrity of the whole. Also if the conductor is a strong story-teller themselves, they can step in at any point a do a panel designed to tie up loose bits, direct the story towards a desired goal, or simply to add their own two cents.
Pre Scripted Jam: A comic jam where the artists collectively illustrate a pre-plotted or scripted narrative. This is an ideal way to structure a collective project. For example you will be able to attract a wide verity of collaborators if you choose a well know source material, say like the bible? Around which you can build your Jam.
Exquisite Corpse: A comic Jam where the participants are some how (partly or completely) blinded to the existing narrative completed so far, creating with only the minimum amount of information from the previous panels or pages. Example: the text or contents of the word balloons is revealed but not the art. Or the last panel before theirs is all that is shown to them. The most common form of Exquisite Corpse is a single image, often of a person/creature or scene drawn by folding a sheet of paper in three or more sections, each artist draws their section with the previously drawn ones folded back so all they can see is the ends of the lines drawn by the previous artist. The end results vary but when well executed you get a wildly trippy page of art. The Exquisite Corpse was invented by the surrealists.
Multiple Path Jam: After the first and second panels have been drawn the following artist can choose to draw in direct sequential order or can branch off from the current story, allowing another artist to continue the existing narrative. Using an existing element from the first or second panels or from any of the following panels or pages the participant can create secondary (or more!) story lines that other artist can continue. A truly masterful multi Path Jam will then come to a single ending tying all the branch stories together. This style of jam requires a large area to work on to allow for its branching structures and is heavily reliant on graphic elements like arrows, tails and ‘snakes and ladders’ to indicate the narrative flow. At Scottmccloud.com, CHOOSE YOUR OWN CARL is a quintessential example of a Multiple Path Jam, in this case drawn by one artist but written by many participants. But a Multiple Path Jam could be conducted freestyle, controlled, or even done as an Exquisite Corpse. The possibilities are endless!
Casted script: A script (written for a Pre Scripted Jam or one artist) divided amongst a team of writers, each assigned the part of either one of the characters, a state of mind (conscious vs unconsciousness), or emotion, or any other division. Each writer would then write in response to the previous writers solo; or in collaboration when their respective elements need to interact. This could be hung on a Pre existing plot outline or done Freestyle.