Friday, May 10, 2013

Deepening The Field: Drawing Comics and Mastering Comics

One of the biggest changes in comics in the last decade is the increasing commitment to providing a pedagogical foundation for both serious students and enthusiastic amateurs alike. Lynda Barry's texts are more about writing and drawing in general than about the specifics of how to make a comic, but they are still invaluable works for any creative person. Ivan Brunetti's Cartooning is still the most valuable single text out there in terms of really getting to the heart of what it is to make comics. Scott McCloud's texts seem to be fading a bit in importance as more authors who have actual experience teaching comics have entered the publishing picture, but Understanding Comics remains an interesting philosophical entry point for a newcomer.

The gold standard for comics pedagogy, however, is Jessica Abel & Matt Madden's Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, as discussed in my reprint column from yesterday. When writing that text, the authors had to cut out a lot of material. So much so, in fact, that they had another book's worth of material to publish. So their Mastering Comics should be seen less as a sequel than a continuation and fleshing out of DWWP, while recapitulating certain points in a different way. It should be noted upfront that this is a textbook and is written as such: units, homework assignments, diagrams, tons of examples, etc. It's not a book that one reads, it's a book that one uses. One could easily jump right into this textbook without having used the first one, especially if one is looking more for tips and less for the basics.

The first three chapters actually touch on Barry-style writing and drawing exercises to help generate ideas and keep up a love of making marks on paper. The fourth chapter goes into hardcore instruction on how to use perspective on the comics page. The fifth chapter begins to address a major items missing from the first book: how and when to do webcomics. This chapter talks a little behind the possibilities and theory behind webcomics. The sixthis all about style; it's a dazzling chapter that provides example after example of how cartoonists break rules to create their own style. The seventh, eighth and ninth chapters go into inking, lettering and greyscale effects. They talk about digital and hand-crafted effects for both, once again going into painstaking detail. This is the good stuff for those looking for specific craft tips with little formal training. The tenth and eleventh chapters go into detail about another deficit from the first volume: color. Chapter ten mostly talks about color principles and digital coloring, while eleven is mostly about hand-coloring. The last chapters are mostly about publishing and hand-making comics. It's unfortunate that both of the minicomics distros referenced in the book are both defunct, but that's the nature of the game. The authors frequently reference the book's blog,which continues and expands upon what's taught in the text. I imagine there will be comics texts that teach certain aspects of the craft better than Abel and Madden, and there are already better books about the creative process. However, I can't imagine better, more thorough yet approachable texts than DWWP and Mastering Comics.

Robyn Chapman's Drawing Comics Lab is in many ways, a distillation of the Abel/Madden textbooks. Combining the emphasis on exercises from those books as well as the philosophy and inspiration from several other books (including Brunetti's Cartooning and McCloud's Understanding Comics) as well as her extensive experience teaching and workshopping, Chapman synthesized her own approach in this book. It's two pages per exercise, zipping the aspiring artist through character building, creativity exercises, panel and page design, pacing, "camera" placement, storytelling tips and tricks, jam comics and other creative exercises, storytelling choices, materials (including ink, paper, pens, and pencils), minicomics publishing, screenprinting and other related aspects of making a comic.
Chapman's book is heavily illustrated and is designed to get the artist's pen moving right away in order to get them to make a minicomic. Its exercises are absolutely perfect for short comics-making courses (like one or two hour workshops) or drink 'n draw events. The chapters on materials are a perfect crash course for an aspiring artist. She seeks out the advice of dozens of other cartoonists for many of the labs; Tom Hart's character exercise is a great example. Her descriptions of the many different ways one can fold paper to produce a minicomic are more thorough than any text I've ever seen; Chapman is a veteran mini-maker and has seen a lot of people try different methods during her time working at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Overall, Drawing Comics Lab creates a unique balance between theory, practice and readability. There's enough attention to detail to impart real and useful information to aspiring cartoonists, but it keeps moving along quickly enough to encourage its students to keep going no matter what. What I like about all of these texts is that Abel, Madden and Chapman worked very hard to become the artists they are today. None of them are the sort of whiz-kid drawers who dazzled everyone from a very young age. The lessons in these books were hard-earned through trial and error and battle-tested by these veteran cartoonists and perfected through years of teaching their students.

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