The DC Comics Guides to Creating Comics
It’s long been a witticism that the only people left reading superhero comics are those who want to create them. To address this audience, DC Comics has published, in association with Watson-Guptill Publications, a series of guides to working on the various comic book crafts.
They’re broken out in the traditional division of labor on the corporate assembly line — Writing, Pencilling, Inking, Coloring and Lettering — and the talent behind them are accomplished in their respective fields.
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics is by writer/editor Dennis O’Neil, famous for his work on Batman, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and much more. He’s also an accomplished instructor, having taught at the School of Visual Arts and various colleges, which benefits him in explaining material to the reader.
He starts with terminology and common symbols (such as thought balloons), the building blocks of a writer’s script. I appreciate his emphasis on teaching the mechanics and knowing the basics. Relatively early, he brings up the need for exposition, making sure the reader knows the character names and the purpose of their conflict in “adventure and fantasy titles” (as he terms them).
Along the way, he shares several rules of thumb. The accomplished writer may not need such recommendations as “start by showing the status quo” or “don’t open on an inanimate object” (because “people are interested in people, not things”), but the aspiring learner will find such strictures useful in turning out acceptable work until they better understand and internalize their own style.
Other chapters cover story structure, creating drama, subplots, characterization (with emphasis on The Hero), and script preparation. Many of the rules relate to 22-page (or shorter!) stories, suited to the serial stapled comic format. When he refers to working with an editor, that’s a limitation/benefit self-publishers likely won’t have. Part Two of the book covers longer formats: the miniseries, maxiseries, ongoing series, story arcs, and megaseries (stories like Batman: No Man’s Land that sprawl through multiple titles).
Graphic novels get a page-and-a-half of coverage. The story arc section spends most of its time on what O’Neil terms “The Levitz Paradigm”, a way to rotate through lead and supporting stories on a continuing basis (as Paul Levitz used when writing The Legion of Super-Heroes). It’s useful, but it also for years prevented the series from being collected in trade paperbacks because it’s the antithesis of arcs with clean breakpoints. As such, I find it an outdated technology — but then, this volume was published in 2001, and the bookstore comic market wasn’t nearly the force it is today. The section on adaptations is also out of date, since few movies are redone in comics these days.
Mark Evanier contributes a three-page appendix on “Writing Humor Comics”. The volume concludes with a short recommended reading list of books about writing.
The DC Comics Guide to Pencilling Comics
Both The DC Comics Guide to Pencilling Comics and The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics are by Klaus Janson, also an SVA teacher.
I thought he was a difficult choice, since I’m not a fan of his scratchy, blocky style. (I prefer “pretty” artists like Stuart Immonen.) However, I soon found it a moot point, since his instruction on pencilling starts with the basics and his illustrations are primarily diagrams: the shapes that make up anatomy, shading to show a light source, etc.
In my opinion, the book spends too much time covering the basics, the kinds of things you find in any book on drawing. There are some comic-specific mentions here and there, but the chapters on faces, anatomy, and perspective are generic except for the illustrations chosen to accompany them. (And successful comic artists have demonstrated that, no matter how many times instructors say the basics are essential, it’s very possible to build a career on ignoring them if you have energy, flash, and luck. Later on, Janson leans towards acknowledging this in a section on the importance of personality to getting a job.)
It’s only halfway through the book, when the page layout discussion begins, that those seeking comic-specific help will be satisfied. Unfortunately, a couple of the examples he selects (including one of his own) to demonstrate alternatives to the usual page grid I found confusing. My eye didn’t follow the flow he suggested. If you don’t agree with the approach and readability of work by the book’s writer, it’s hard to take his advice on storytelling clarity.
The section on “Shots and Angles” is a useful reference, however. The book ends with a page-by-page commentary on an 8-page Batman story by Janson. Overall, this is the weakest of the series, but it’s followed by the strongest.
The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics
The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics begins with equipment: ink, paper, brushes, pens. Then comes the explanation of the craft, exploring the unique nature of comic book inking in terms of the separation of duties and the question of “tracing”. This book has a very thorough explanation of some of the situations inkers will be asked to tackle and how they can handle issues of reproduction, depth, line weight, lighting, and texture and avoid common mistakes.
At the same time Janson acknowledges that mass-produced commodity comics are craft, not art, part of a business aiming only at profit, he also argues for inkers working to the best of their ability and providing value through skill. Inkers are artists, he says, and “the ability to draw is the single most important talent to become a successful inker.”
The illustrations are especially helpful in this volume, supporting Janson’s points and demonstrating different styles through comparisons with the same underlying penciller. One sequence shows how much work has been done on a single page after every hour — the whole thing takes five.
The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics
The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics is a split volume. DC’s Art Director, Mark Chiarello, tackles coloring while the acclaimed Todd Klein handles lettering. Each half is again divided in two, one section for the craft and another about using a computer to perform it. As it has to be, this volume is printed in color, unlike the others.
Chiarello begins his section with a history of comic book coloring, followed by color principles and techniques, including making choices to best suit an artist’s style. He packs a lot of useful information into limited space, with plenty of examples.
The meat of his contribution then deals with the tool of the computer, including software, scanning, and file delivery. He focuses on Photoshop commands and menus, since it’s the industry standard. This section is very specific to someone who’s going to actually be doing the work; unlike the other pieces, a reader only interested in theory and general education will find most of this skippable.
Todd Klein begins his half with an astounding sampler, a piece he created by hand in 1993. It made me sad that that craft is a dying art, with most choosing the ease of computer lettering instead. He moves on to tools and then principles and practice for text, balloons, sound effects, titles, logos, and advanced techniques, including the essential art of balloon placement. The computer section focuses on font design and creation and using Adobe Illustrator.
The focus on how lettering and coloring should work, regardless of tools, makes this book valuable, even as the computer sections have aged.
The Series and Its Future
One of the benefits of the DC Comics imprimatur is the use of their characters and story pages in illustrating the books. It’s comforting to see examples featuring Superman, Batman, and the Flash, and the covers feature DC’s “big three” characters for audience familiarity. The books are copiously illustrated, too, with plenty of full-page black-and-white reproductions of comic pages. (Sometimes, as in the writing volume, I wondered if there were too many, since some of them had only a tangential connection to the material. Still, they were pretty and eye-catching, making it easy to move through the books.)
The flip side is that, as you’d expect, there’s an underlying assumption in the books that “comics” means superhero comics and the assembly line division of labor is in place. Someone interested in doing all the artistic work on their own graphic novel, for example, will only find some of the advice useful. They should read these volumes with their own filter in place. There’s still information to be gained, but they may not need to consider how to prepare work for handing off to someone else. If you’re interested in working in the realm of corporate comics, though, there are no better guidebooks than these from one of the two biggest superhero companies.
And the series isn’t done yet: The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics is due out later this year.