Rob reviews the young readers how-to guide/narrative, ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING, by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost (FIRST SECOND).
It's a golden age for comics in many respects, but it's especially a great time for comics textbooks. With schools such as CCS, SCAD, SVA and MCAD offering formal instruction and cartooning courses popping up everywhere, it makes sense that we should finally see some practical comics textbooks. From Ivan Brunetti's informal CARTOONING book to the densely-detailed DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES from Jessica Abel & Matt Madden along with Lynda Barry's more general inspirational guide WHAT IT IS and Kyle Baker's goofy HOW TO DRAW STUPID, there's now an embarassment of riches for anyone designing a course for teens or adults. First Second, a publisher that has gone out of its way to publish a number of comics aimed squarely at children, has stepped up to supplement the Abel/Madden book with ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING, which is designed to both educate and inspire younger children as to the formal properties of comics while telling a story.
Not surprisingly, the book was put together by the head of the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), James Sturm, and two graduates of the school, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost. Frederick-Frost has already won a Xeric grant for his LA PRIMAVERA, and all three artists have collaborated here with a pitch-perfect blend of pedagogy and fun. The book starts off by asking if the reader can draw simple shapes and promises them the ability to draw comics if they can. ADVENTURES simultaneously folds in an adventure about a knight trying to rescue a princess from a dragon into a lesson about the basics of comics, with the knight as a stand-in for the reader and a magic elf as the instructor.
The reader learns about the basic unit of the page, the panel; how to depict motion against a background, the way text influences the way we perceive image, word balloons vs thought balloons and other concepts--all within the context of a comedic quest adventure story. It's actually a delightfully meta sort of story, like a less malevolent DUCK AMUCK, as the characters find themselves able to manipulate the rules of their world as they understand more and more about comics. The end result is extremely clever, as the book surprisingly becomes an exciting adventure story, a brief comment about gender equity, and an open-ended invitation to the reader to create their own stories. The book finishes with a handy appendix of other comics concepts (like gutters), and a step-by-step series of instructions on how to draw basic characters like horses and people. It's hard to tell what the division of labor was between the three artists. I recognize Frederick-Frost's brushstrokes in how the figures are finished, but the way the action is depicted makes it seem like Arnold did the layouts. Sturm may well have written it, given his recent background as an educator, though I'm sure all three artists had input in every segment of the book.
I'll be curious to see what sort of effect this book has on children, and what the best age group would be for it. I'm guessing that the ideal group would be somewhere between seven and ten years old. The book is probably a little too simplistic for anyone older, but I'm not sure its ideas will sink in with anyone younger, unless they have an adult working with them. I do like that there's a sample of an actual child's story based on the book's characters in the back, showing a reader that their own work doesn't have to be as exact as the creators of the book. That said, the only flaw of the book is that it may not be interactive enough to really force the reader into making their own strip. The reader is introduced to a number of concepts, shown how they can work in a story, but then gets swept along with the story. At the very end, the book asks the reader to create their own stories, but this requires a bit of a leap for a child that doesn't already draw. On the other hand, the book could be a way to get children to "turn your doodles into comics!" as the front cover suggests. It's supposing that most children will have the raw material to want to start to draw comics, just not the tools. As such, ADVENTURES IN CARTOONING is more of a toolbox (or perhaps toybox) than a textbook, explicitly providing aspiring cartoonists with the fundamentals an implicitly showing them how to write the sort of story that they'd want to read.