Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Cartooning, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

For years, there was a dearth of educational resources available for those who wanted to learn how to create comics. Sure, there were piecemeal options available: textbooks on drawing anatomy, life-drawing courses, creative writing workshops, etc. But when one of the few books that actually addressed comics creation for many years was "How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way", it was obvious that this badly needed to be addressed. In the past few years, there's been a greater demand for comics-related pedagogy and the result has been the creation of schools like the Center for Cartoon Studies and expanded programs at the Savannah College of Art & Design, the School for Visual Arts (SVA), etc.
Many professional cartoonists find themselves winding up as teachers either at places like SVA or at other colleges trying to teach the medium. For Ivan Brunetti, he created a comics course from trial and error, but the result was that he developed a syllabus and curriculum that worked for him. He codified these results in a brisk 80-page booklet titled Cartooning: Philosophy And Practice, and it was included along with Comic Art #8. Brunetti is one of the great thinking cartoonists, and it's obvious that the teaching methods he employed were as much about his own ways of getting around his own writer's block and fear of the page as they were to teach others how to do so. In that respect, it's very much a worthy companion to Linda Barry's astonishing What It Is. The emphasis is on the pure pleasure of cartooning, with no other specific end in mind.

Brunetti's Cartooning is less a detailed textbook and more an annotated, detailed course syllabus or guide. It's sparsely illustrated and has an informal, conversational style in its instruction. It reminds me a bit of Aristotle's writings, which were designed as notes for lectures, conversational in tone. The genius of this book is the way Brunetti builds from week to week. In a fifteen-week course, Brunetti moves from the sort of spontaneous drawing (doodling) that anyone can understand and works his way up to single-panel cartoons, four-panel strips, using different grid styles, learning to use different tools and onward to creating a four-page story. Brunetti is a demanding teacher and accepts no shortcuts, but he also has remarkable patience for beginners. The assignments and exercises he hands out are incredibly clever and cut through potential writer's block in ingenious ways.

While I would have preferred more figures and examples, the illustrations he does employ add a high degree of clarity to this book. It should be noted that Brunetti makes a careful distinction that this book is not designed to instruct one on how to draw, but rather on how to cartoon. He teaches principles based on intuitive ideas about how to look at an image and doesn't spend much time indexing a lot of formal terminology regarding panel-to-panel transitions, for example. This is a manual for a lab-only course, in a sense; he's teaching principles but immediately instructs the student to work out these principles on a page. He also spends a little time discussing some of the tools and equipment needed for comics but doesn't dwell on it. His driving point is cartooning fundamentals, and he emphasizes that this can be taught using a standard sketchbook and a pencil. That said, he later does give some practical advice and exercises related to the use of tools, becoming comfortable with them and mastering them. Brunetti's voice speaks loudly in this book, and he doesn't hide his many strongly-held opinions and theories on cartooning. That idiosyncratic approach is one of Cartooning's greatest strengths.

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, in their text Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, seemed to pick and choose from a number of different sources in their approach. Both instructors at SVA (and of course, veteran cartoonists in their own right), they set out to create a definitive, step-by-step, heavily-illustrated book that covered virtually every aspect of comics creation. There's a lot of Scott McCloud in this book in terms of the way they used categories and labels to explain concepts like representation and transitions, but they were careful to avoid McCloud's more dogmatic, essentialist positions on how to define comics. The structure of this book is much like Brunetti's, down to the 15-week, college-semester length of the course to building up from crude images to more complex structures. The book very much has a "big-tent" approach, encouraging its use for artists interested in a variety of styles, from super-heroes to manga to art comics. That's certainly a matter of practicality as much as anything, given the nature of the student body at SVA.

There's a lot to like about this book. Like Brunetti, they quickly cut to the chase and have their students drawing. They also find ways to make distinctions between students in the classroom, independent drawing clubs, and individual artists, letting them know how they should approach the assignments. Given the scope of their nearly 300-page textbook, Abel & Madden spend a lot of time defining and illustrating a number of concepts, terms and tools used in creating comics, going into a lot of detail. They spend two different chapters on inking techniques, talk about lettering for a chapter (including how to use an Ames guide), and discuss reproduction techniques in another.

For any assignments that involve new techniques, it's laid out in a step-by-step, illustrated series of diagrams. Abel and Madden spend time on approaches to panel composition, tricky bits of anatomy like heads and hands, story structure, 24-hour comics and how to make a mini-comic. The chapter on story structure felt like something right out of a screenwriter's manual, given its emphasis on conflict, protagonists, story sparks, etc. As noted earlier, Abel & Madden pick and choose from a number of sources to throw as much information as possible at the aspiring cartoonist, within reason. They actually don't get into fine-art concepts like perspective as much as one would think, for example.

The book is at its best when Abel and Madden use panels, strips and pages from other cartoonists. The way they break down structure, design and composition of classic strips or illustrate the way artists use certain tools are used is positively illuminating. That was especially true in their chapters on inking and the effects one can achieve with it. One thing I was very surprised not to see in this book was a chapter on color and coloring. I was also a bit surprised that they didn't devote at least an appendix to webcomics and what one needs to vary when putting one's work online. That said, I did appreciate that like Brunetti, they found it important to emphasize the handcrafted origins of cartooning. Before one fools around with a computer, they need to understand the fundamentals.
While both books share a lot in common philosophically, the main difference between the two lies in focus. Brunetti's book is about teaching cartooning for its own sake, while Abel & Madden aim their work at artists aspiring to publish. It's an important distinction. Brunetti tries to encourage non-cartoonists to relax on the page and enjoy the physical, visceral experience of drawing, all while teaching them discipline and fundamentals. Abel and Madden aim to slow down aspiring cartoonists from plotting out their epics or graphic novels and get them to focus that enthusiasm on the fundamentals. If their approach is a bit more prosaic and process-oriented, it's because the book is aimed at artists who want tips and helpful hints as much or more than theory. If I was designing a comics class, I'd assign both books, using Brunetti's as a template but referring constantly to Abel & Madden's for specific examples and solutions to problems.

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