These simple visual tools & reading marks help your history comics COME TO LIFE on the page!
The F.A.S.T Visual Toolbox
(My favorite comics tend to include all four of these visual tools, in various combinations.)
Sometimes I think of them as “storytelling elements,” in the chemistry sense — They really are building blocks that combine to form stories in the minds of readers. It’s the stuff we’re going to pour into our panels & pages to help the reader experience our story!
Starting with the SOURCE TEXT:
To draw history comics, I always start with a historical primary source text. For example, here’s a source text from my graphic novel, The Civil War Diary of Freeman Colby, Vol. 2 — from a letter dated 12 November 1863, where a young hospital nurse named Sarah Low writes home to her family in New Hampshire, describing one aspect of her busy hospital ward in Washington, D.C.:
This is a surprising part of Sarah Low’s Civil War experience! I’m interested in what it tells us about the hospital where Low & her many patients live & work. However, in this typed transcript, Low’s story just doesn’t leap off the page and catch the reader’s eye the way it might in a comics format…
In order to draw out Low’s letter as a comic, I’ll first have to find (& mark) those F.A.S.T. visual elements in the text!
First, I’ll read through the text and mark any FACES (a.k.a. characters) to include in the comic:
That gives us the cat and her two kittens. Notice how I’m NOT drawing them here — I’m just marking the PLACE in the source text where they appear — so as to say, “Psst! Characters here!”
(Let’s also remember that Nurse Low, as observer & writer, might also be a character in whatever scene we draw.)
Next, I’ll read through the text and mark out key ACTIONS to show in the comic:
The way these F.A.S.T. elements COMBINE is even more important than any single element alone. I like how this primary source text focuses on a cat washing her face — in the middle of the Civil War! Maybe this CHARACTER + ACTION + SETTING combination can tell us something about Low’s own feelings & experiences, as she witnesses so much suffering in this hospital…
Finding SETTING details:
Next I’ll mark up SETTINGS:
The “ward” is a hospital ward in Washington, D.C. in 1863. I’m not so sure what Low means by “military life” but it’s something that affects the characters (cats) so I’m curious to know what it is…
Choosing TEXT to Quote:
Finally, I’ll look for some key TEXT that I want to learn more about and/or include — maybe this:
I’m not sure what Low means by “demoralizing effect” but it’s an interesting term. Maybe I’ll include it in the comic somehow. I also like her phrase “a cat in the service” — this is a military cat, at a military hospital… (Can this cat become “demoralized,” like some of her soldier patients have become at this point in the war?)
To my eye, these markups make this source text much more visually interesting. The markups help me quickly locate all those key characters & actions etc. as I work on my comic!
Researching VISUAL SOURCES:
With my F.A.S.T. marks in place, I might also write some research questions out in the margins, like so:
Then I’m ready to do some research, which might include any of the following:
- finding photographs, drawings, paintings, &c. of similar characters & settings (in this case, Washington D.C. hospital wards, patients, & nurses in 1863)
- reading other letters by Sarah Low, to get a sense of her personality & situation
- reading other texts by Sarah Low’s contemporaries (hospital diaries, letters, news articles, &c.)
- looking at cats, or photos of cats. This will give me ideas about how to cartoon a cat into the comic. What do they look like? How do they move? etc.
(Are there Civil War cat photos/drawings…?!)
DEMO VIDEOS of F.A.S.T. in Artwork:
How F.A.S.T. tools combine with primary sources in a single cartoon portrait.
Quick-drawing an 8-page 1-Sheet using the F.A.S.T. toolbox!