In many ways, it’s an ideal time to be an aspiring comics creator. Between bookstores, newsstands, the internet, and the direct market there’s a wider audience than ever before. The trade press gives an up-and-comer vast information on other creators and industry news. Perhaps most important, there are numerous opportunities to study the craft, whether at a specialized institution like the Joe Kubert School or the Center for Cartoon Studies, or even a class at the local college.
And there are books.
Books on creating comics are a very hit-or-miss game. For the longest time there were hardly any books available at all, usually How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, or if you were lucky Will Eisner’s two books. Now there are whole subsections in bookstores with vast reams of books, ranging from accomplished texts on storytelling to generic here’s-how-to-knock-out-a-superman-knockoff recipe books. Some of them have something of genuine worth to impart. Some of them, you would probably be better off taking the money, buying a case of paper and drawing on every sheet until you’ve gotten all of the bad drawing out of your system.
Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures avoids the flaws of the latter type in the same way that the interior of China avoids the Belgian coast. Much like Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning, the book treats learning as a process, breaking down the development of skills to make one lesson build on the previous. Drawing Words is the best kind of workbook, in that as a casual read, it fails. You can’t sit back with it and let the pages lecture to you; to get the full experience you need to put the lessons to practice.
Going with the anti-assumption that there are as many ways to do comics as there are people who do comics, the book uses examples from a wide range of comics, from American newspaper funnies to Japanese manga to teach a basic understanding of mechanics and storytelling. Readers learn practical skills such as how to use a lettering guide and different inking methods with clear instructions. In addition, lessons and exercises also explore storytelling and layout, and the different narrative effects that illustration can create.
One of the most practical aspects of the book is it’s format. The book is printed on wide 12×9 pages, which means the book will actually stay open when laid flat, making it easy to reference the book while you work.
Abel and Madden have taught at institutions ranging from the School of Visual Arts in New York City to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and their pedagogical abilities definitely show. The book is rich and informative while still being engaging and fun. Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is a book that can give someone unable to attend a live class on comics a solid grounding in principles and method, and could even function as a textbook to construct a class around. Perhaps most important is the fact that a no point does the book ever put story or art above one or the other; if you want to do comics, it’s all one and the same.
Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, is published by First Second for $29.95
Greg Baldino lives and writes in Chicago. His work has appeared in Fictionary, Rain Taxi, Booklist, and several other publications. He too have so far avoided the Belgian coast, but for purely practical reasons. Contact him at greg dot baldino at gmail dot com.