How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning

How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning

Kyle Baker’s How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning is, as you might gather from the title, not your typical instruction book.

Many how-to manuals inadvertently reveal more about the writer and their philosophy of life than intended. This one puts that material front and center. It’s not really a book about drawing, but about being a cartoonist, with all that entails. And the advice itself is simple, beginning with the very basic. If you want to be a cartoonist, “do a cartoon”.

How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning

Baker wants people to do the work without fear. He simplifies, almost to the point of belittling his craft, but his principles are universal. Let the art do the work. Keep it simple. Be funny. Use reference. Think about your audience. Be distinctive. Some of it is unusual — like don’t have a backup plan — but all of it makes sense. The simplicity is deceiving, because to truly follow this advice takes a great deal of work and willpower. Some of the same material can be found in the introduction to Undercover Genie: The Irreverent Conjurings of an Illustrative Aladdin, but there it seems angrier. Here it’s presented with more mature wisdom.

His chapter on drawing is so bare-bones as to be comical. (Paraphrased: Men are angular, women are curvy, kids have big heads.) That doesn’t matter — an artist has heard it all before. Baker encourages thought about what it all means. He goes on to point out that the key to cartooning is exaggeration, and he encourages development of a unique style. What’s important, what causes viewers to be entertained, is the personality of characters.

His advice is old-fashioned, and that makes it counter-cultural these days, when artists are used to hearing about how important it is to wallow in their own specialness. My favorite piece of advice in the whole book is as follows: “Be interesting. Nobody cares about you. I doubt a comic book about the recent breakup of your romantic relationship would be very entertaining. You know who’s going to read that? Lonely people! You know what’s wrong with lonely people? No word of mouth!”

By insisting anyone can do what he does, the reader sees how special Baker’s work really is. (For examples, check out Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show.) After reading, I now understand why even Baker’s illustrations look like animation storyboards: it’s all about the movement. If for no other reasons, this book is worth reading just to see his cartoons. And to share his life lessons, like how and why he failed art.

The short chapters stick to the basics, but I found myself thinking more about the nature of art, entertainment, and humor after reading than I have more detailed manuals that make bigger promises. This is really a pep talk under book covers, with the plus of cool cartoons. Everyone should read it.

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