August 2008

Shaun Manning

nonfiction

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

Though guides and treatises on creating comics have existed for some time -- Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art being a must-read for any aspiring graphic novelist -- Jessica Abel and Matt Madden's Drawing Words and Writing Pictures may be the first significant textbook for the medium. Foregoing the theorizing and definitional boundary-setting of gurus like Scott McCloud, Abel and Madden have established a traditional classroom approach to comics, structured as a fifteen-week class. The book lays out in great detail the components of visual storytelling, from pacing and characterization to panel design and resizing artwork. The authors include guides to brushes, nib pens, and other necessary tools. Possibly falling into the usual trap of textbooks, though, what Drawing Words does not include is instruction on improving the writing and illustration itself -- but that's ok, there are plenty of other books, workshops, and the like devoted specifically to these subjects, and very few so useful on the topic of comics as Abel and Madden's new guide.

Both authors have respected and long-running careers in the indie comic scene. Abel's most recent book, Life Sucks, was recently published by First Second, while Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story took the Oulipian approach of recounting the same tale in many different ways. Based on classes Abel and Madden have taught at the School of Visual Arts, Drawing Words approaches comic book authorship from the perspective of independent creators. Abel and Madden insist that all students complete the exercises, even though some may have little skill in, say, drawing. It's a useful way of looking at things, though, because even though the completed homework may lack finesse, a writing-focused student can still glean the lessons relating to composition, timing, transitions, and the like. Also, as the authors point out, many web comics and newspaper strip creators are not fantastic artists but are nevertheless able to use images to effectively tell a story. Other exercises include creating new stories from cut-and-pasted panels from newspaper strips, collaborating with friends on a “jam” comic, and experimenting with different ways to tell the “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme in pictures. Abel and Madden provide further resources and “extra credit” assignments online, and the web site also serves as a portal for students exploring the book independently. The ability for students to post their homework online for critique adds an extra layer of interactivity, though it will be interesting to see whether the authors can keep up with a heavy flow of submissions.

The art of telling a story is covered almost exclusively in the earlier chapters, as Abel and Madden examine the various effects created by the juxtaposition of images and words in one-panel comics and the art of pacing in multi-panel strips. There is also some discussion of what goes on between panels and the ways that the eye is directed through a story. Beginning with Chapter 5, though, Drawing Words shifts towards the artistic and mechanical side of creating comics. While this isn't an advanced drawing course, Abel and Madden do not neglect to include some basics of drawing the human figure and tips on perspective. The penciling chapter includes advice on sketching properly-proportioned “figurettes” and using traced photos as the basis for drawing characters in fluid motion. Later chapters touch on backgrounds and the sort of “head and hands” diagrams found in found in many beginners' drawing books. Toward the end of the book, Abel and Madden get into some of the finer points of inking with a brush and the various effects one can expect -- this, again, is less “how to draw” than it is “how to make the most of what you're drawing.” Two brief sections on title design, the first appearing in the lettering chapter and the second receiving a bit more attention in Chapter 11, “Setting the Stage,” are quite intriguing for their discussion of how a title's appearance defines a comic and the various ways a title can be incorporated into the story art. Also in the lettering chapter, the authors also make a compelling case for hand lettering and provide a rather comprehensive list of tools necessary to make it look good.

After finishing off their how-to on penciling and inking, Abel and Madden address the technological side of creating comics. Though instructions for effective use of a photocopier first crop up in Chapter 7, it is the penultimate Chapter 14 that will likely hold the greater interest for cartoonists in the digital age. Here, the authors provide detailed instructions for scanning line art and making corrections in Photoshop.

The husband and wife team of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have produced a valuable addition to the field of cartooning “how to” books. Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is not a substitute for Eisner or McCloud, or even for more recent editions like Scott Kurtz, Kris Straub, Dave Kellett, and Brad Guigar's How to Make Web Comics, but is rather another resource to fill in and expand on the expertise provided in those volumes. This book is perhaps the most straightforward and interactive guide to creating comics, purposefully directing students of the medium in how best to use their storytelling and artistic talents.

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
First Second
ISBN: 978-1-59643-131-7
304 pages