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‘COMICS & HIGHER EDUCATION: Finding the Funny and Creating Comics’

Brief Overview:

This PhD research uses the ‘Incongruity Theory’ of humour as a tool for developing funny ideas into humorous comics or ‘funnies’. Incongruity theory indicates that humour is the result of the clash of two ideas that create amusement with a surprising conflict of the familiar and the unexpected. The ultimate aim of the research is to create a graphic guidebook on ‘how to find the funny’ for university students on creative and comics degrees. Graphic guidebooks currently form an important part of the canon of books that form part of the curriculum of Comics Studies degrees, in particular works by Scott McCloud and Lynda Barry. Yet, these guidebooks do not explicitly address the significance of the ‘funnies’ genre, which is particularly relevant to British history and the development of the comics medium. The final creative submission of the guidebook will include creative activities with incongruity theory to develop both funny styles and ideas for humorous comics making. These creative activities will be tested for effectiveness in arts-based action research and participatory action research workshops to gather feedback on the most useful ideas for development and inclusion in the guidebook for use by adults in Higher Education and perhaps beyond.

Detailed outline:  

This practice-based PhD combines comics studies, comedy studies, and pedagogy. It seeks to address questions of how to find funny ideas and transform them into humorous comics or ‘funnies’ (henceforth). Research involves designing activities for creating funnies with the aid of incongruity theory, which will be tested in focus groups for efficacy before inclusion in the submission of the ‘how to’ guidebook. The ultimate aim is to contribute a new dimension to the curriculum in the emerging field of comics pedagogy at Higher Education level.

Incongruity theory posits that humour is elicited from the conflict that exists between the familiar and the unexpected. Comics is a medium that encompasses many genres in flexible word-image hybridity with ever-evolving affordances. Nevertheless, for the genre of funnies it is pertinent to investigate cartoons and comic strips. The PhD’s creative research involves exploratory drawings, maintaining a comics diary, and culminates in the pedagogic graphic guidebook to provide a practical incremental framework to create funnies.

The PhD is not concerned with defining funniness, which is a complicated response influenced by many variables from socio-cultural factors to psychology. Instead, the research focuses on helping people develop their personal interpretations of funniness through comics practice, where humour is defined as an emotion of pleasure and enjoyment that results in levity.

The teaching of how to make comics at higher education level is now widespread. In the UK context there are currently BA courses with the specific aim of educating industry-ready comics creators at the University of Dundee, University of Leeds and University of Teesside.  However, following an initial survey of comics degrees, where I emailed course directors and teachers for curriculum information, the emphasis is on storytelling rather than humour-construction.  There is a long history of humorous comics in the UK arguably since the arrival of printing and yet this genre is oddly underrepresented in Comics Studies degrees and curricula in the UK. Comics Studies degrees are composed of both practice-based (e.g. BA and MA at Dundee University) and theoretical programmes (e.g. MA at University of East Anglia). My work is primarily aimed at practice-based course but aims also to be useful for theoretical with critical engagement of incongruity theory within the ‘funnies’ genre.

My past students at Coventry University often expressed concern that they could not draw and that ‘bad drawing’ is problematic, but my research  considers ‘it’s not the ink, it’s the think’ that makes funnies and that it is possible to demystify the process and develop a practical framework for finding funny ideas, and finally that ‘bad drawing’ is useful (perhaps even preferable) for the creation of funnies to stretch reality into incongruous possibilities.

The development of this framework builds on theory from comedy studies that discusses diverse approaches to humour. I have selected incongruity theory for its neutrality, unlike more political or psychological approaches such as; superiority theory that derides or relief theory that releases emotion.

This research focusses on the unique verbo-visual workings of the humour in the comics medium that work rather differently from film or television comedy.  Research contributes to gaps in comedy studies on the workings of this specific verbo-visual humour and aims to contribute to expanding research beyond its previous primary focus of verbal humour. It also contributes to the aforesaid gap in comics studies literature and adds to burgeoning comics practice doctoral research. Finally, the work aims to contribute to the gap in pedagogic texts by providing a graphic ‘how to’ guide on funnies creation. My research appears to be the first practice-based exploration utilising incongruity theory to find and construct the funny idea in comics.

Research uses a foundation methodology of Action Research (or AR) aims to develop useful collaborative understanding through creative practice.  Action research works in communities of practice, such as the UK comics community, and in participatory action research (or PAR). Action Research is usually qualitative research, but my research hopes to include quantitative data from online workshops if ethical approval is forthcoming.

COMICS AND HIGHER EDUCATION: Finding the Funny and Creating Comics


 You are being invited to take part in research on Comics Studies for Higher Education. Clari Searle, PhD student at University of the Arts (or UAL) London, is leading this research. It is important that you understand why the research is being conducted and what it will involve. Please take time to read the following information carefully.

What is the purpose of the study?

The purpose of the study is to explore the best creative process to find funny ideas and to build these ideas in the comics medium in cartoons and comic strips. The ultimate aim is to create a graphic guidebook for university students to help them create humorous comics. The participant workshops are important to test various activities to discover the best ways to find funny ideas and create humorous comics. Participant feedback is essential for the creation of the guidebook and you will be invited to share opinions and ideas on workshop activities.

The research is concerned with the playful exploration of combinations of unlikely ideas to find funny drawing styles and funny ideas. We are using Incongruity Theory which is a light-hearted approach to humour to develop imaginative ideas with the surprise of unlikely combinations. We are not using the Superiority Theory approach to humour, which is a more aggressive approach to humour devised to attack or insult others. This approach is common in political and satirical cartooning, which is irrelevant for this research and related political and hot button topics, such as religion, race and politics, will not be explored. Please note, participation will be excluded in this instance as irrelevant to the research and potentially upsetting for other participants.

The workshops take well-being of participants very seriously and there are ‘Guidelines for the Workshops’, which will help us to enjoy a positive collaborative online session.

Why have I been chosen to take part?

You are invited to participate in this study because you are involved with higher education and creative and/or comics studies degrees.

What are the benefits of taking part?

By sharing your experiences with us, you will experiment in workshops with different creative activities designed to help find the funny style and the funny idea.  These workshops aim to be enjoyable experiences to develop well-being and finds ways to lighten life with humour. You will have access to this toolbox of activities created during the session and afterwards if you wish to continue the creative work. You are also helping Clari Searle, University of the Arts London, and Higher Education institutions in the UK to better understand the workings of the creative process to create humorous comics and to integrate these findings into the curriculum for future students. The research ultimately aims to elucidate ways to find the funny and to develop skills to lighten life with various activities and cognitive tools.

Are there any risks associated with taking part?

This study has been reviewed and approved through University of the Arts London formal research ethics procedure. There are no significant risks associated with participation.

There are minor risks that another participant’s sense of humour may cause offence or that the creative process could cause self-reflection or personal discovery that may be uncomfortable. However, the workshops are designed for you to freely explore your own personal senses of humour and work will not be analysed. Sessions will be conducted on both in real life and on Zoom. On Zoom,  you are able to mute your speaker, turn off your camera, and withdraw from the workshop at any time.

Do I have to take part?

No – it is entirely up to you. If you do decide to take part, please keep this Information Sheet and complete the Informed Consent Form to show that you understand your rights in relation to the research, and that you are happy to participate. You are free to withdraw your information from the project data set at any time. You should note that your data may be used in the production of formal research outputs (e.g. journal articles, conference papers, theses and reports) prior to this date and so you are advised to contact the university at the earliest opportunity should you wish to withdraw from the study.   To withdraw, please contact the lead researcher (contact details are provided below) and UAL Research Management and Administration  [] You do not need to give a reason. A decision to withdraw, or not to take part, will not affect you in any way.

What will happen if I decide to take part?

You will be asked to participate in workshops online or in real life where you will test creative activities for creating funny comics. You can join only one or several workshops. You will be asked to share your opinions on the activities in discussion and/or online chat. You can also share your drawings (if you wish) during the online workshops with other participants or afterwards with the researcher.  The online workshops will record the ‘chat’ only, so that you are free to relax and enjoy the session. Workshops will take 60- 90 minutes each with a comfort break if needed. You are free to join the session 10 minutes early should you wish to talk to the researcher beforehand.

Data Protection and Confidentiality

Your data will be processed in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation 2016 (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018.  All information collected about you will be kept strictly confidential. Unless they are fully anonymised in our records, your data will be referred to by a unique participant number rather than by name. The only exception will be if your creative work is used in the final guidebook, you may wish your real name to be used – in this case the researcher will email you to confirm. If you consent to being audio recorded, all recordings will be destroyed once they have been transcribed. Your data will only be viewed by the researcher/research team.  All paper records will be stored in a locked filing cabinet in the researcher’s office.  Your consent information will be kept separately from your responses in order to minimise risk in the event of a data breach. The lead researcher will take responsibility for data destruction and all collected data will be destroyed on completion of the research in 2025.

Data Protection Rights

University Arts London is a Data Controller for the information you provide.  You have the right to access information held about you. Your right of access can be exercised in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018. You also have other rights including rights of correction, erasure, objection, and data portability.  For more details, including the right to lodge a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office, please visit  Questions, comments and requests about your personal data can also be sent to the University Data Protection Officer –

  What will happen with the results of this study?

The results of this study may be summarised in published articles, reports and presentations.   Quotes or key findings will always be made anonymous in any formal outputs unless we have your prior and explicit written permission to mention you by name.

 Making a Complaint

If you are unhappy with any aspect of this research, please first contact the lead researcher, Clari Searle, If you still have concerns and wish to make a formal complaint, please write to the Research Management and Administration Team on, and/or the research supervisor:

Professor Roger Sabin

University of Arts London

Granary Building,

1 Granary Square,

Kings Cross,

London N1C 4AA

In your letter please provide information about the research project, specify the name of the researcher and detail the nature of your complaint

Guidelines for the Workshop:

These workshops are designed to be a safe playful space for creativity and these guidelines are to help develop a positive environment that maintains the well-being of all participants.

  • All participants are welcome and respected regardless of background or identity.
  • You are welcome to arrive early to the Zoom room to chat to others and to ask questions on the session or how to use Zoom.
  • People should be referred to according to their chosen pronouns (e.g. they/them, she/her, he/him). Please share the terms you prefer, either during the session or beforehand by emailing me.
  • There is no hierarchy in the group and all members’ opinions will be valued equally. The researcher will facilitate the session for practical reasons only and she is very interested in learning from your ideas.
  • Opinions (both negative and positive) are particularly valued on activities and the creative process. However, only positive feedback is welcome on creative work.
  • All participants will be listened to and the researcher may mute participants’ microphones at times to help everyone have a turn to express themselves.
  • You are requested to avoid interrupting others and are encouraged to use the ‘raise hand’ function if you wish to interject.
  • All creativity is valued, and only positive feedback is permitted verbally or typed in the ‘chat’ function. This will help to build participants’ sense of freedom to create without fear of criticism.
  • You are welcome to share your work at the end of activities in ‘gallery’ view on Zoom. It is also fine to keep your work hidden and this does not affect the research aim to develop an effective creative process and activities.
  • We are not concerned with technical drawing ability, instead we encourage doodling and drawing ‘badly’ for creating the funny.
  • Creativity of funny styles and funny ideas will be explored with playful activities and light-hearted prompts (devised with incongruity theory – an approach to humour that enjoys unlikely and unexpected combinations). We are not interested in any kind of insult comedy that seeks to attack or demean others.
  • Participants will be asked to leave the Zoom room if they are unkind and this includes examples of negativity, insult, and discrimination.
  • Creative work should not be shared if you have any concerns that it could cause offense of any kind.
  • Participants can turn off mics and cameras as and when they feel it is appropriate.
  • Well-being is paramount, so you are free to leave the session for any reason to maintain well-being, for example, to go to the bathroom, to get a drink, or to look after children and pets.
  • We expect all participants to treat the virtual space as a positive professional environment for research purposes. Through their participation, each participant is agreeing to the terms and conditions of this document.
  • Participants may be struggling (with the current situation or life in general) for varied reasons and everyone will be treated with kind compassion.
  • Participants are free to get in touch with the researcher with any concerns before, during (in the private chat), or after the workshop.
  • Most of all, be kind and have fun! The research hopes to help people lighten their lives by finding the funny ideas and the workshops are designed to be an enjoyable escape from the everyday.


COMICS AND HIGHER EDUCATION: Finding the Funny and Creating Comics

You are invited to take part in this research study for the purpose of collecting data on useful activities for develop the best creative process and practice for finding funny ideas and creating humorous comics. Data collection will take place in real life and Zoom workshops of 60- 90 minutes where you will test various activities to find the funny.

Please do not hesitate to ask questions if anything is unclear or if you would like more information about any aspect of this research. It is important that you feel able to take the necessary time to decide whether or not you wish to take part.

If you are happy to participate, your signature confirms the following. (You will be given the opportunity to sign during workshops either online or in real life and do not need to sign below).

  • I understand the research aims and my participation is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw my data and my participation at all time, without giving a reason and without my legal rights being affected.
  • I understand that all the information I provide will be held securely and treated confidentially
  • I am happy for the information I provide and the images I create to be used (anonymously or with my name) in academic papers and other formal research outputs
Participant’s Name Date Signature





UAL Reseach and Administration contact email (to withdraw from research or to express concerns or complaint):