The guiding principle of improvisation in acting and comedy is YES AND... This means AGREEING to the previous ideas and images (“YES”), and ADDING to them (“AND”).
There are tons of terrible “jam” comix out there because people resolutely defy this improvisational principle. They blow up developing characters with brand new bombs, draw random inspiration from previous panel and draw whatever they feel like, destroying entire premises for the momentary thrill of drawing some car wreck or some unconnected idea while some other idea is clearly developing.
So, agreeing to an idea/image, and then adding to it is essentially what we are talking about. You can do this with yourself.
The rough draft above was sketched no more than two panels per day for about a week. Note the questions and ideas in the right margin after day 1.
I personally find that I needed time in between ideas. Some people are a lot faster. We all have our rhythms.
The above improvisation, by Joe Matt, Seth and Chester Brown demonstrates the “YES AND” principle exceptionally well. Panel 1 establishes a situation- a plane landing. Panel 2 agrees, YES, AND: it crashes into another plane. Panel 3 and 4 both agree and add detail and texture. Panel 5 picks up the YES AND of the narrative again. YES there was a crash, AND there was one survivor. AND he found his suitcase (panel 6) AND it contains his model ship (panel 7) AND a wounded kid in panel 8 thinks it’s his AND the guy finds the kid’s real ship in panel 9. A great improvisation. No one stepping on each other’s toes, every artist respecting the choices of the previous one, each artist making the previous one look good by adding to their ideas.
PROPOSING A FEW FORMS
There are lots of codified improvisation “forms” in theater. Except for the “Exquisite Corpse”, a visual collaboration created by the Dadaists, there really isn’t a tradition of structured improvisation in American comix. I’ve always lamented this, so I’m going to propose a few here:
THE HAPPY CLOWN- any number of creators.
Inspired by Chester Brown: a story in which with a panel that reads “Aggh- I’ve accidentally broken my leg.” Bonus points if it’s the final panel. EXTRA bonus points if you can make an evening of it, tell frequent stories, where the “Aggh” panel begins in panel 1 of the evening’s first story, then the second in the second, etc until it’s the final panel in the final story. Clink beers. Everyone stumbles home.
THE SIXTO - two creators.
A 3 row, 2 column grid is created. Creator 1 begins by drawing panel 1. Creator 2 Draws panel 6. Creator 1 must next draw a panel in the 2nd tier (panels 3 or 4.) From there, the page is passed back and forth, the creators choosing which remaining panel they want to complete until all six are done.
THE CINDER OF OZ - any number of creators.
A character emerges in a landscape. It meets 3 other characters, each introducing the next one to the main character. At least one panel must feature a character completely upside down, at least one is of cinders or a puddle of dissolved goo.
THE CREATURE FEATURE - for two creators.
Each begins by creating a single image landscape. One image will become panel one and the other will become the final panel in the strip. Working from panel one, they trade off panel by panel until they reach the final panel and consider it finished.
And finally, THE RAPSCALLION, a jam in 7 scenes, based on improv comedy’s “Harold” form. Any number of creators, though best with 1-4. All creators should work on scene 3, 6 and 7. Other scenes can be limited to 1 or 2 creators, as the group sees fit.
scene 1- 2 characters, different in visual size or scale.
scene 2 - a monologue by different character
scene 3 - a single drawing of a landscape, with at least one creature in it
scene 4 - 2 characters again, related in some way to scene 1
scene 5 - monologist again, related in some way to scene 2
scene 6 - a landscape like scene 3. No connection necessary.
scene 7 - the piece is ended in this scene, mixing as many of the above materials as possible, and finalized per rules of the usual “jam”, i.e., one panel at a time.
EXERCISE - Improvisation
1. Start with two characters and a relationship.
Using the techniques we covered: attaching, daydreaming, listing options, etc.; draw a 9 panel comic, at the pace of 1 panel each day for 9 days.
Do this slowly; the mind needs to react as if the material is new. It’s important to forget yesterday’s work.
If this is frustratingly slow, do 2 or 3 improvisations at a time. Remember the principle of YES AND.
2. Find a partner to make an unstructured jam with.
3. Make a Cinder of Oz, a Rapscallion, a Happy Clown or a Creature Feature