The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 98 | Storytelling 101: Beyond Understanding Comics

Leaving Proof 98 | Storytelling 101: Beyond Understanding Comics
Published on Wednesday, April 4, 2012 by

For the most part, your average comic book reader doesn’t really need in-depth and codified knowledge of comics and sequential art to appreciate comic books and comic strips at a competent level. The credo “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like” is a sufficient guiding principle for your casual consumer of funny books, perhaps because there is a partially intuitive aspect to the process we apply to the comprehension of sequential art—legendary comics artist Will Eisner even went so far to suggest that sequential art interpretation shares many of the same features found in natural language reading competency. But odds are good that, if you’re a regular or returning Leaving Proof reader, your interest in comics goes beyond a cursory regard for the medium and that you harbour at least some desire to understand the art and craft of comics to a degree beyond that of the pedestrian.

The purpose of today’s column is not to provide you with a list of resources and references that will dictate what you should or should not like comics-wise. Rather, it is the column’s goal to direct you to sources of information that have, over the years, provided me with a firmer understanding of the technical and philosophical aspects that determine what comics I like, in the hope that they can do the same for you and thus enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of The Ninth Art.

Expand Your Range: Try a little bit of everything

The first step towards gaining a wider and personally relevant understanding of comics and sequential art is, of course, to actually read comics. Lots of them. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the comics genre or style you already like, whether it’s superheroes, shōjo, horror, yonkoma, or whatever else, but make sure to step out of your comfort zone every once and a while. In attempting to isolate the cornerstones that define what you consider to be good comics craft, it is helpful to read comics in genres, styles, traditions, and even languages that you are not extensively familiar with: for instance, a reader’s superhero comics bias might prevent him from identifying a superhero comic book artist’s poor figure drawing technique that would otherwise be evident to the same reader in a different context. It’s also important to mix it up a little and read publications besides comics. You know the type, every comic book shop has at least one: the comics idiot-savant who can list all the past and current, active and reserve members of the Avengers and the Justice League, but thinks Sherlock Holmes was a real person and Hamlet is a play about a small pig. You don’t want to be that guy.

Generally though, most long-time comic book readers already have some idea of what they like and don’t like in terms of comics writing and art without having to extensively reflect on what those characteristics might be. Keep in mind that these features are not immutable and that you are not beholden to them; they can lose importance, gain more significance, or change as your knowledge of comics grows and external factors influence your tastes in art and entertainment. I find myself continually redefining what I consider important aspects of “good” comics. This isn’t so much fickleness or inconsistency as it is the mark of a dynamic and evolving relationship with comics and art in general. As the poet Gelett Burgess wisely observed

If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.

The Basic Text: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

For several years now, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art has been the definitive basic text for scholarly comics studies (in the North American educational institutions that offer comics studies courses, at least). McCloud provides a coherent theory of comics and simultaneously applies and presents it in the book’s comics-formatted chapters. I don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of McCloud’s theory (particularly his strict delineation between Idea/Purpose and Form), but as a general reference, his book is a perfectly suitable starting point for honing one’s critical appreciation of comics. It is written clearly and concisely, well-illustrated, and widely available in many brick-and-mortar and online bookstores, comic book shops, and libraries.

Advanced Studies in Visual Storytelling: Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Guiseppe Cristiano’s Storyboard Design Course

For many years, the late Will Eisner taught a graphic storytelling course at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Comics and Sequential Art is a textbook based on that course. Unlike Understanding Comics, Comics and Sequential Art is formatted more like a standard instructional volume, with text chapters and extensive figural and storytelling examples drawn from some of Eisner’s best and most popular works. There is some overlap in the subject matter covered by the two publications, although Eisner’s book primarily emphasizes the visual aspects of panel/page composition and panel-to-panel visual storytelling. The book does devote some chapters on comics theory, though (I’ve written a previous column commenting on his ideas about a putative “grammar of comics”). Comics and Sequential Art isn’t what I would consider an “entry-level” text on comics, but for someone who has already studied Understanding Comics, has a background in illustration and related visual arts, or possesses extensive experience reading comics featuring diverse styles and genres, Comics and Sequential Art can be a particularly insightful read.

Giuseppe Cristiano’s excellent Storyboard Design Course, despite being originally intended as a resource for film and animation storyboard artists, is also a useful reference for visual storytelling techniques that can be applied to comics. With the growing trend of mainstream American comics being laid out as “paper movies” and the continued proliferation of live-action and animated film and television adaptations of comics (and their print counterpart, the comic book adaptation of the film/TV property), the elements and principles of storyboard design are an increasingly important and relevant addition to the comic book storytelling vocabulary.

State of the Art: TwoMorrows Publishing’s The Best of Draw! Volumes 1 and 2

We’ve all heard, read, or participated in the following kind of exchange: One person, after sampling a creative work (a video game or a soufflé, for example), criticizes some aspect of it. Another person, maybe even the one responsible for creating the work in question, responds to the criticism by saying “let’s see you do better!”

This is a logically unsound retort, of course. One need not be a video game designer in order to perceive and complain about a bug in a video game nor is culinary skill a requirement in order to have a valid opinion about someone’s cooking. It is the same way in comics: you don’t have to be an anatomy professor to find something bizarre about Rob Liefeld’s infamous Captain America drawing. Still, some familiarity with the technical processes and aesthetic motivations behind comic book illustration, animation, character design, and other related disciplines go a long way towards illuminating why we like certain comics artists’ works and why we find some other artists’ output less aesthetically pleasing.

The first two volumes of TwoMorrows Publishing’s Best of Draw! series of trade paperbacks provide a near-complete overview of the comic book art production process, with detailed articles on script breakdowns and page layouts, penciling, inking, colouring, traditional animation, figure drawing, and figure composition authored and illustrated by some of the best and most prolific artists in the comics and animation industries (including Bret Blevins, Dick Giordano, Genndy Tartakovsky, Jerry Ordway, Kevin Nowlan, Mike Manley, and Ricardo Villagran).

Other suggested art-and-illustration themed books: Mark Salisbury’s Artists on Comic Art, Adrian Hill’s How to Draw, any basic figure drawing and life drawing textbook.

Online Resources: Steven Grant’s Permanent Damage, Mark Evanier’s POVOnline, and Jim Shooter’s blog

There’s no shortage of columnists and bloggers who offer astute observations and well-informed opinions about the craft and art of comics. In general though, I tend to follow established comics professionals whose work I currently patronize or enjoyed in the past.

Writer Steven Grant’s archived Permanent Damage column (currently on indefinite hiatus) at Comic Book Resources contains some of the most incisive comics-themed essays on the World Wide Web. His ten-part Creating Comics Step-by-Step series of columns from 2005, in my mind, is just as informative and educational as anything McCloud or Eisner has written on the topic of comics craft. Many of long-time comics and animation writer and editor Mark Evanier’s old POVOnline blog entries are instructive and are frequently funny besides. The old entries are archived in two sections on his new blog, News from ME. Veteran comics scribe, former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief, Valiant Comics co-founder, and self-described “large mammal” Jim Shooter has a blog that is an excellent Internet resource for learning about comics creation.

The biggest issue with these three resources, for the purposes of this particular column, is that Grant, Evanier, and Shooter also write very extensively about things other than the craft of comics, and it can be quite time-consuming to go through their archived entries looking for the relevant material (this is particularly true of Permanent Damage and POVOnline, since they come from a time before article tagging was a popular website/blog feature).

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Learning about comics is not only a personally satisfying and highly enjoyable endeavour, it can also serve as the first step on the path to teaching others to appreciate comics and sequential art. Do you have a suggestion for the reading list? Let me know in the comments section below or send me an e-mail.

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