Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

This textbook is arranged in 15 lessons that promise to teach the reader “the foundations of visual storytelling”. And you know, given the authors, I believe them. Matt Madden previously created the amazing 99 Ways to Tell a Story, as well as the graphic novel Odds Off. Jessica Abel‘s works include La Perdida and Life Sucks, and together, they have taught years’ worth of comic courses, gaining important practical experience in what works instructionally. (And because they’re artists, they can also draw themselves into the book.)

Drawing Words & Writing Pictures is designed so that it can be used either in a classroom or for independent study (as so often happens — comics have reached a point where some formal study is available, but the majority of practitioners are still self-taught). And the authors are careful to treat comics as an art form, not a genre, so that the book applies to aspiring artists whether they want to create superheroes, manga, independent/art comics, or webcomics.

The 15-lesson structure mimics a 15-week college course of 3 to 6 hours a class, and the companion website has teaching guides (including ways to select material to fit courses of different lengths), examples of student work, lists of supplies needed per chapter, and links and downloadable extras. The material covers both technical skills (such as lettering) and writing considerations (story structure, developing characters).

Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

Chapters include activities (to be done in class or a group), homework (done individually between sessions/chapters), and recommendations for further reading. Sidebars present tips, information on art supplies, definitions, and other background material. It’s a very well-laid out book — although with a strange fondness for orange, the only color in the otherwise black-and-white book — that demonstrates how much thought went into this project. It’s horizontal, for example, so no matter where in the book you are, it will stay open to the page you want without having to hold it with one hand.

As expected, the first chapter covers definitions and terminology. They don’t get bogged down in “what is comics?”, but it’s important that they get students on the same page in considering “comics” a medium, not a genre or a format, as well as establishing common structural terms. (And I appreciated the sidebar called “Can’t draw?” I think even those who want to only write comics should read and learn from this book as well.)

Actual creation begins with one-panel work: sensible for a time-limited class setting, but one of the most difficult for communication. (If you want to show action and reaction, more panels makes it easier.) I applaud them challenging their students this way — they’re starting with the basic blocks of combining words and images to understand how the two together make magic.

Other chapters cover, in addition to expected topics like penciling (which focuses on figure drawing and tools and mechanics, not illustration), thumbnails, panel transitions, page design and layout, world-building and observation, inking (2 chapters, one each for pen and brush), and scanning. The lettering chapter makes a strong case for hand lettering as an essential skill and better for comics aesthetically (especially if done in both upper- and lower-case). I also appreciated the short mentions of topics such as “how to use a photocopier” and “correct posture” and “stretches”. Appendices cover supplies, how to critique, story-generating ideas, how to do a comic book report, and making minicomics.

Because they’re structuring lessons in ways unexpected, the student will learn much more than they realize. Instead of merely the usual functional breakdown — writing, drawing, inking, etc. — this book is based on principles, progressing from juxtaposition to sequence, timing, and so on. It’s a much more fundamental approach that will result in a fuller understanding of the medium, not just craft construction.

The book itself is an easy read, written in the tone of a coach instead of a schoolteacher. (While that profession is under-valued and admirable, the associations are uncomfortable.) The text is conversational, with personality, yet the content is the most important part. You can get through it quickly, picking up lots of information along the way, but you’re not going to truly benefit from it unless you commit to working with it, engaging in the exercises and actually creating comics. Unfortunately, if you’re following it on your own, you’re going to miss out on the critiques that are a major follow-on part to the homework and activity sections.

This is the first book about making comics that is truly a textbook. It’s not just about how to draw, but how to create and design stories. It incorporates both theory and practice. It moves, step-by-step, from the basics to more advanced lessons, until at the end, the student has made their own minicomic. A second volume is in the works, planned to cover such advanced topics as how to create a graphic novel, publishing, and distribution. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

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