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.
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.