October 2006

Brian M. Dunn

nonfiction

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud

In the 1990s, Connie Willis came out with To Say Nothing of the Dog, my pick for the best comic novel since A Confederacy of Dunces. I’ve since learned to recommend it as such; better to leave out the fact that it is a combination of Science Fiction and 19th century comedy of manners. You could offer your average reader a free puppy and they wouldn’t read the damned thing based on that description.

Making Comics, by Scott McCloud? An outstanding graphic textbook on making comic books.

<sigh>

Free puppy, anyone?

McCloud deserves better. This is his third nonfiction book on comics, following Understanding Comics, a brilliant introduction to the intricacies and limitless dramatic possibilities of graphic fiction, and Reinventing Comics, an audacious but less successful attempt to predict -- and preserve -- a future for comics beyond the traditional funny book format and into the paperless world of Internet commerce. (Predicting the future is a slippery business at best.) In his latest work, McCloud is doing nothing less than taking would-be comics artists by the hand and presenting them with a guide to creating comics while acknowledging its limitless potential as a storytelling medium. “There are no rules,” writes McCloud, “and here they are.”

Presented as graphic nonfiction, McCloud is able to present the basic building blocks inherent in making narrative graphic fiction, articulate the various choices available to the artist -- with no bias regarding comics style or story content -- all in the service of clarity. By the time you’ve finished the first section, “Writing with Pictures,” you will have a firm grasp of the essential concepts of telling a story with pictures. And yes, if you can’t talk Junior out of wasting $200,000 at NYU Film School, you just might want to buy him this book.

Consider: When examining art on a practical level, each element has to be broken down away from its original form, an image copied or a page torn from the organic whole. The reader is given desiccated, grandiose academic concepts that are supposed to, when developed, lead toward a living, breathing reading/viewing experience. Or, the reader finds concrete examples from works of genius he or she will never duplicate because of a lack of the life experience and sensibilities of the artist, which leads to pale imitation at best. There is no discussion -- or better still, concrete examples -- of the choices the artist didn’t make, how simple alternate compositions of frame, character motivations, etc., might evoke an alternate, but completely valid, response in the audience. And let’s not forget that after reading a few thousand more pretentious bullshit paragraphs like this one and Junior’s thinking, “Maybe my parents were right, maybe the world does need another prick lawyer.”

Making Comics is all about choices. Short scenes are drawn and redrawn to show how different choices of frame, moment and image affect clarity and emotional impact. Examples are given from comic strips, manga and graphic novels to illustrate how various common techniques are realized by the vision of the artist. Most striking of all is when our guide, a comics representation of the author that I'll call "Little Scott" just to be evil, pulls the skin off a human face to show the musculature within. He then shows us the six basic expressions of human emotion -- anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise -- then, in a slightly disturbing “Stephen King’s Math Primer for Disturbed Children” way,  how each can be combined and manipulated like primary colors (for example by varying the intensity) to show the full range of expression. Why? Because if you have the drawing chops to capture the full range of human emotion you can articulate stories that cover the full range of human experience. Damned clever.

(Better yet, roll up a copy of Making Comics and swat your budding Spielberg on the back of the head with it. But I digress...)

Now, before I’m accused of being Mrs. McCloud in drag, let me point out that, yes, for the non-artists like myself, the “Heck, I can do this!” feeling gets shot all to hell when he starts talking about perspective and which pen to use. And yes, it is unfortunate that it looks like Little Scott has two thumbs on his left hand in the panel when he begins talking about hand gestures. Finally, as shown in the notes section that end each chapter, no one is more ready to question and argue about his conclusions about making comics than McCloud himself.

As he confesses in his introduction, McCloud has been dissatisfied with his own attempts at doing comic stories in the past, and he’s created Making Comics under the thesis that “if I can teach anyone else to make great comics… maybe I can teach myself as well.” Now, while I find the latter part of his statement a bit dubious (libraries are chock-full of guides to writing novels, plays and screenplays by authors who have never written a great novel, play or film script), the kid's got potential, and here’s hoping he finds a story worthy of his prodigious talent.

And as to that one-line description, how about:

Scott McCloud has created a guide to creating comics that is as thoughtful and entertaining as the best and best-loved work in the field, both enjoyable and accessible to casual fans of the form and the new gold standard for artists who want to create their own comics, manga and graphic novels.

Better?

(I’m also tempted to add that it makes a striking argument for using graphic narrative as a teaching tool, but I figured one declarative statement too many and I’d have to start passing out schnauzers.)

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud
Harper Paperbacks
ISBN: 0060780940
272 Pages