In this special edition Illustrated PEN, we are thrilled to present an excerpt of Flying Kites, a collaboration by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project.

Flying Kites is the eighth iteration of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. This twenty-week, two-course project is designed to teach nonfiction research, visual storytelling, and long-form narrative structure to undergraduates through the collaborative creation of a graphic novel. Early in the course, students propose real-life stories as possible subjects to adapt. The class discusses the merits of each proposal before selecting one to tell as a group. We work through the rough outlines of the story, create character turnarounds and 3D models of scenes for reference, then thumbnail, ink, scan, color, and edit scenes, all as a group. The book is set in a font created from student handwriting.

This year, our storytelling challenge involved the use of composite characters. We’ve long had to invent dialogue and certain scenes, but here we created fictional characters who evoke the real, honest, and accurate experience of being in prison and having a loved one in prison. Our main purpose was to protect the real lives we compiled for these composite portraits. Individual prisoners can, and have been, punished for sharing their stories with the outside world.

We are so thankful to the students for the incredible depth of their research and the care they brought to getting this story right. Again and again, we were faced with hard facts about a penal practice that is widespread, capricious, and cruel. At every turn of this process, we as instructors marveled at the students’ dedication to engaging this story in its depth and its complexity.

Read the full bios of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project students, teaching assistants, and instructors here »