Will Eisner’s Instructional Books: Comics and Sequential Art, Graphic Storytelling, Expressive Anatomy

Comics and Sequential Art cover

At the end of 2008, W.W. Norton issued updated editions of Will Eisner’s classic instructional manuals on creating comics. Comparing the revised Comics and Sequential Art to the original edition (first published in 1985) showed me immediately how much of an improvement the new printing was.

The presentation is much sleeker and more modern, with a layout that looks like it was created by a professional art designer, instead of the high school research paper appearance of the original. There are easy-to-skim headings and pullquotes, in an attractive red highlight color, and captions placed with the images they refer to instead of hanging off the page edges like afterthoughts. The book welcomes the reader in immediately instead of seeming off-putting in its blocks of text, and the flat white paper shows off the images better than the slick gloss of the previous. (Note the coordinating color scheme: the gold-covered book has red highlights, the blue-covered has gold highlights, and the red-covered has blue.)

Comics and Sequential Art cover

Eisner’s original Foreword is included, as is a new editor’s note by Denis Kitchen, who explains changes in the work and how decisions were made. Small updates have been made to the text, such as including the term “graphic novel” instead of “comic book” much of the time and acknowledging the greater prominence of the medium of comics than in Eisner’s era.

The book’s original structure as a series of class notes revised into essays is maintained, which means I still find Eisner’s text, at times, a bit stuffy and old-fashioned. For example, early on:

When one examines a comic book feature as a whole, the deployment of its unique elements takes on the characteristic of a language. … Modern readers can be expected to have an easy understanding of the image-word mix and the traditional deciphering of text.

Eisner’s emphasis on comics as language means he takes an order of lessons that doesn’t seem natural to me. He starts with text as image, showing how to letter in conjunction with the story’s mood, before moving to exaggerated images on their own, with no words. Talking about panel shapes and whether to use borders before storytelling or characterization doesn’t match my understanding of comic construction structure, but he’s the acclaimed cartoonist. He winds up tackling writing in the sixth of seven chapters, where he neatly disposes of the separation of tasks seen in corporate publishers as inferior to having a single writer/artist and prejudices the visuals as the most important element. “Writing” here is treated as mechanics, how to produce a script, instead of exploring questions of theme or other literary criteria. (That’s the next book.)

Simply studying the composition of his pages, reproduced beautifully here, while reading his notes on his intentions, provides for a class in itself. He’s clearly thought a lot about all of this, but at times this is more of a philosophical or pedagogical book than a how-to one. Perhaps I should say instead that it’s not always intended for the beginning creator but for a more advanced one, ready for help with pacing to establish passage of time, for example. To use a computer science simile, this is more like a book of algorithms, help on the best ways to accomplish a given task, than a starter book.

Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative cover

New to this edition are short art samples by creators other than Eisner. A page by Jason is used to support a lesson on wordless storytelling, in addition to a seven-page pantomime Spirit story by Eisner, while a page of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home illustrates emotional impact. Other artists included are R. Crumb, Jason Lutes, and Nick Bertozzi.

Also newly included is acknowledgment throughout that comics can be created and displayed digitally. The last two chapters, “Application: The Use of Sequential Art” and “Teaching and Learning Sequential Art for Comics in the Print and Digital Age”, have had the most updates. The former keeps Eisner’s differentiation between entertainment and instructional comics, but short sections on graphic novels and webcomics are either new or radically revised, while a brief history of Eisner’s work on instructional comics has been added. The last chapter adds sections on “Digital Art and the PC”, “Digital Delivery”, and related topics.

The second book (in order of creation) is Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. It similarly contains the same Kitchen editor’s note, the Eisner Foreword and Introduction from the original book (1995), and the updated, impressive format and layout. While the first concentrates on craft, this one explores, as the title says, elements of storytelling. That is, structure, genre, creating emotional impact and involvement in the reader, pacing, plotting, art style, and unique challenges of writing for comics.

Eisner also argues for the use of symbolism and stereotype to quickly convey meaning through visual images. However, once again, this book is descriptive (here are different genres, this is what that means) instead of telling the reader how to do any of these things better. It’s clear that these books were written in a different time, one where talking about the medium had to be justified and explained instead of its value being acknowledged. The biggest change in this volume comes near the end, where a previous chapter on “Electronic Delivery”, covering video and CD Rom formats, has been replaced by the new, short “Comics and the Internet” and a page on technical setup for webcomics.

Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative cover

Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative is the newest book, expanded from a chapter in the first book. Eisner had been working on it before his passing in 2005, so Peter Poplaski, an Eisner collaborator, finished it, as explained in Kitchen’s Editor’s Note. To quote from Eisner’s Introduction:

… it is my belief that the function of human anatomy, with an emphasis on its role in the process of emotion and intent, has been sorely neglected by young artists learning the practices of comics and sequential art. This book aims to remedy that neglect by providing a basic guide of body grammar for the depiction of people as characters and their manipulation as actors in the service of a drama. …

This book begins with the mechanical construction of the human figure in common positions using common gestures. Then, examples of emotion and reaction drawn from personal observation are added.

After seeing so many story pages in previous books, it’s a bit of a switch to open this volume and see page after page of skeletons and musculature. Based on this material, Eisner prioritized gesture and posture to convey visual impact and emotion over text content. Much of the book is a gallery of samples, whether expressions to show feeling (often exaggerated, so they’d be understood by the reader without words) or anatomical diagrams. Additional chapters focus on other artists, including George Bridgeman’s anatomical building blocks; Charles Dana Gibson’s expressive cartoons; Jack Kirby’s forceful, powerful heroes; and Rudolph Topffer’s facial studies.

I would find these books best utilized as course texts, where a knowledgeable instructor could guide the new reader through some of the thornier passages and ensure they’re gaining as much as they can from the material. That would be especially helpful when it comes to Eisner’s justification of stereotypical features and images in the last book; I would think a fruitful discussion could result from examining his pages of “Jewish cast members” and “African-American and Hispanic ethnic character types” from his neighborhood books. However, even read on one’s own, there’s a reason these are considered foundations of comic education.


  • Simon

    I have the anthumous editions of his two main essays.

    About the style, it’s good that you show a text excerpt because it lets you bring attention to a potential issue while letting readers gauge its level for themselves. Myself, it didn’t bother me too much. (I guess I don’t mind an old-fashioned gentleman, especially compared to a Facebook degenerati?)

    I had assumed the posthumous “third” one a more or less ghoulish cash-in, but I didn’t know how much the revised editions were improved! I don’t like the double-dipping assaults this cottage industry seems predicated on, which is their version of planned obsolescence — but maybe I’ll have to find the new ones somewhere some time!

    Still, it’s good to have them in-print and in nicer editions. More people should read them.

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