*Making Comics — Recommended

Scott McCloud revolutionized discussion of the comic medium with his instant classic Understanding Comics. It gave many a new way to talk about comics, the beginning of a language with which to discuss and analyze the form.

Now, a decade later, he’s created Making Comics, promising “storytelling secrets of comics, manga, and graphic novels”. Instead of theory, this book is about practice. And it’s not just about linework or anatomy or common elements of popular genres or styles… it’s about the bedrock of a great comic, what the author wants to communicate.

Making Comics cover
Making Comics
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Impressively, McCloud’s introduction starts the book in a common place: the desire to learn. McCloud’s doppelganger, the simplified stand-in for him first seen in Understanding Comics, is now a bit chunkier with greying hair, indicating the passage of time, but he’s still got the driving intellectual curiosity and friendly demeanor that makes him a comforting and helpful narrator. His first admission to the reader is that he’s a student as well, learning along with us how to make great comics.

He ends the introduction with a mind-blowing admission: “There are no rules. And here they are.” By acknowledging the innate contradiction in telling someone they can work in any format (strip, book, online, regardless of influence) and any way they want, but that there are innate principles to follow, he prepares the reader to open their minds to what he’s got to say. The diversity of examples he includes — superheroes, manga, Maus, webcomics — demonstrates a wide-ranging taste that allows him to cross the borders many readers and creators draw around themselves.

By creating a how-to-draw-comics manual that is itself a comic, McCloud provides two methods of access. The verbally inclined can read through the text, using the pictures as supporting examples. Alternately, the visually motivated may find it a longer experience, as they marvel at McCloud’s art choices, panel arrangements, and page designs. There is nothing else like this out there, and it can be difficult to keep one’s mind on McCloud’s lessons because his method of conveying them is so wonderfully distracting. So much work clearly went into this book, resulting in pages dense with information and illustrative example.

The chapters cover significant and broad topics: The first explores “clarity, persuasion, and intensity”, or how to select the pictures that tell the story. McCloud’s fond of lists, which are a fine teaching aid, showing the reader what he considers the important points to remember and followed by detailed exploration of each item. Of particular help to many creators will be the sections on panel flow, or how to lead the reader’s eye as desired, and using intensity effectively, with dramatic contrast. McCloud’s reminder of the two key aims is well-put: “You want readers to understand what you have to tell them — and you want them to care.”

Chapter two tackles character design, exploring not only visual creation, but character background and personality. The section on facial expression is particularly eye-opening; a great deal of analysis obviously went into it, with a lengthy breakdown of basic emotions and their variations. The third chapter, “The Power of Words”, is surprisingly short compared to the previous two. That’s because it’s not about writing, but about the different ways text and pictures combine or integrate to make a comic panel, as well as the technical questions of word balloons and sound effects.

Additional chapters cover the importance of setting and background, the wide variety of tools available to creators, and finding an individual style. That last chapter is the most digressive, with McCloud incorporating essays on manga’s appeal (which he attributes to a greater sense of audience participation), the use of genre, and four basic artistic philosophies. Each chapter ends with a section of McCloud’s notes and suggested exercises to put lessons into practice.

Simply put, if you want to create comics, or if you want to read comics with more understanding, you must read this book. McCloud has a website dedicated to the book with notes and more information on tools.

14 Responses to “*Making Comics — Recommended”

  1. W. Rowntree Says:

    Because of the lack of other in-depth writing about comics theory and practice, this book, like McCloud’s other work, has the problem of being an argument without a rebuttal. He is basically the only person writing about comics in this way to have any popular success, and so you are telling people that they “must read this book” for the wrong reasons. If we all read this book because we want to learn techniques, then we will all make comics like Scott McCloud. That is not wholly bad, I’m sure, but it’s still conformity. To elevate the state of comics theory and criticism, one MUST read this book for the purpose of formulating alternative theories and practices that others may find as or more appealing. The discourse must grow. Scott McCloud needs some competition. Do you think there’s only ONE must-have book about filmmaking? No, there’s probably hundreds. None of which were read by the pioneers of the genre, to breach upon a related argument…

  2. jabolo Says:

    Actually, it is often said that those great filmmakers of the of the 70s were the first generation to come out of a self conscious film school age. It was their knowledge of past orthdoxy and appreciation of the theory of what ‘works’ for an audience that allowed them to break with that formula in ways that also worked.

    I know nothing about the technical aspects of comics, but I think whether reading this book will cause people to write exactly like Scott McCloud depends on how well he served his role of comic art historian and synthesize what always worked and seperate that from his personal style. He might start from this knowledge, but there is likely room for creativity while aknowledging what did and did not work.

    So while there might be room to criticize his technical observations, I think it is taking it too far to say that a single base line leads to repetitive work.

  3. The Dane Says:

    Actually Rowntree, I thought McCloud went out of his way to say that there is no McCloud way and that, instead, there are a million different ways and a million different people finding those ways. He offers some pointers that work for him and then discusses some of the techniques that others use. Rather than an argument without a rebuttal, it seemed to me like an introduction to a wide-open field in which there are any number of games to play with any number of tools.

    I read the book because I found his other two books in the series interesting and you know what? I found his discussion in Making Comics so hopeful and inspiring that I’m now working on my first comic book – something that seemed too daunting before I read the book. And it won’t be a McCloud comic. It will be my comic.

  4. Nat Gertler Says:

    “If we all read this book because we want to learn techniques, then we will all make comics like Scott McCloud.”

    No, if we all read this book, we will all have some of the tools in McCloud’s toolkit. That does not prevent us from getting tools from elsewhere, from seeing techniques from our own observations.

    It would be a mistake to think that the only way we learn to craft comics is by reading a book.

  5. Dwight Williams Says:

    No argument. And certainly not by reading one book alone to the exclusion of others.

    Moreover, Scott encourages us all to keep looking for other tools to add to our respective kits. If that’s not one of his better aspects as a teacher, I don’t know what is.

  6. Journalista » Blog Archive » Jan. 17, 2007: Poor Hachi… Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson reviews Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, giving me another excuse to use that panel at right as an illustration. (Right: from Making Comics, ©2006 Scott McCloud. Mmmmm… in-jokes…) […]

  7. dave Says:

    Rowntree: there are two basic problems with your post. I think the other posters here have covered the first, your assertion that readers of this book will be somehow transformed into Scott McCloud clones, pretty well. The second though, is your assumption that the book is being reccomended as the ONLY “must read” book on making comics. Which is, I think, a misreading of the article. I doubt very much that Johanna has forgotten about the works of Will Eisner, or is suggesting that we should ignore them in favour of McCloud’s work.

    You seem to be under the impression that this is the first book of it’s kind. I’d advise you to go looking around the web a bit, I think you’ll find quite few other people cover this ground. The fact is, however, that McCloud does it better than most- which is why his work gets so much more attention.

  8. Ayo Says:

    I have long been an enthusist of McCloud’s “-Comics” books (even parts of the second one) and I’ve never been fully convinced of the argument against McCloud.

    His detractors often speak about things that are out of McCloud’s control and blame him for it. Some accuse him of pushing only his own agenda or perspective. As Dane suggests, McCloud goes out of his way to try to be inclusive of everything that he can think of (sometimes to his own detriment, re: the ancient tapestries being comics). Essentially, we cannot expect any theorist and author to NOT talk about his own beliefs and views. Furthermore, it’s not his responsibility to write dissenting theories. He can’t help it if other people are not writing contradictory papers and books. If anything, McCloud has shown the capacity to embrace contradictory views and at the very least place them on the table for discussion, so I’d think he’d welcome some “competition.”

    Also, I hear Tania del Rio’s “American Manga-ka” book is supposed to be a great technical guide with industry insight, along with the “Webcomickers” book (did I get that right?), so there are other things out there that are getting good press. Usually these aren’t as comprehensive as a McCloud book, but every player must play to his/her strengths.


  9. Johanna Says:

    Dave, you bring up a good point — I have a whole stack of classic books about comics (making comics, history, etc.) that I want to talk about. As always, it’s finding the time!

  10. Tzod Says:

    I have this book and I think that as an indepth treatise on the subject of making comics it is superior to many other books I’ve read or perused on the subject. Additionally, this book, if read with an open mind, has value beyond the genre de nomme, providing keen insight into a variety of subjects. The wise reader will be able to distill its knowledge and apply the principles to various facets of his or her life. Pay no heed to the ridiculous assertion that practical application of the methods discussed will result in an army of McCloudian clones. That’s preposterous! In fact, no art or artifice of mankind exists in a vacuum where the full expression of talents has been displayed without precedent. Mankind holds no patent on creativity. Nevertheless, no one can produce another’s brush strokes (Og Mandino, The Greatest Salesman in the World).

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