When Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s first comics instructional text, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, was released in 2008 the landscape of studio-focused comics texts was fairly limited. Scott McCloud’s Making Comics had appeared in 2006, but prior to that Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative were among the very few books available based on actual classroom experience teaching prospective cartoonists.
With the publication of Drawing Words, comics teachers like myself (I’ve taught comics at various places—from my local community art center, The Sawtooth School, to SCAD’s eLearning division, to multi-day workshops all over the country) finally had a single, iterative book that could function as a textbook for a basic ten-week comics class. Since then, though, a number of high-caliber instructional books have appeared, most notably Lynda Barry’s What It Is (released also in 2008) and Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice (2011). It’s on the heels of these releases that Mastering Comics, Abel and Madden’s sequel to Drawing Words appears.
What does Mastering Comics add to Drawing Words? It is indeed a sequel of sorts; you’ll find it useful if you’ve completed the coursework from Drawing Words. More generally, though, it’s an instructional book intended for people who already have a solid background in producing comics. It’s assumed that if you’re reading Mastering Comics, you’ve already figured out the basics of the comics-making process and you’re ready to, well… master, the medium of comics.
The layout and organization of the book will be familiar to anyone who’s read the first volume. Its exercises and lesson plans are—as before—set up for three different types of potential learners: “Students” (actual comics students in a classroom environment), “Ronin” (individual, independent learners), and “Nomads” (non-students who are doing the coursework with other non-students in a group—either in person or online). The tight integration between the two books is evident in one of its most useful (but least likely to be noticed) features: a full index that incorporates both volumes of the series. And again, a reader/student can work through the volume doing the assignments and projects from each chapter. Even more so than the last volume, the assignments in Mastering Comics are iterative and work toward producing complete, finished comics stories from idea phase through to final production and publishing.
What I found most interesting about Mastering Comics, though (and what readers will find most beneficial in this new volume) were the areas which the previous volume did not address—or at least, did not do so substantially:
Coloring – While coloring was touched on in the previous volume, it’s gone into in far more depth here, even detailing specific techniques in Photoshop—something Drawing Words didn’t do a whole lot of. This section is especially valuable because of the bewildering—and often contradictory— array of online digital coloring how-to’s that are out there (try Googling “digital comics coloring” to see what I mean!). There are of course many, many different workable setups for coloring a comic, but it’s great to have the solid, basic, easy-to-understand baseline setup detailed in Mastering Comics to serve as a jumping-off point for someone just getting into digital color.
Webcomics – Webcomics are specifically addressed in this volume, whereas they were not in the previous. Although there are surprisingly few sections in the book devoted specifically to webcomics, the authors do a good job of bringing up webcomics-related process concerns throughout the text. While I agree generally with the authors’ comments in the introduction that webcomics are at heart basically a “new format” of the broader entity we call “comics,” given the incredible disparity between the voluminous readership of online comics vs. the diminishing readership of print comics, I’d have expected a more substantial section on web-specific comics concerns and formatting issues related to digital devices. The book generally is still very much grounded in the processes of print comics. There were, for example, few—if any—webcomics included in any of the “further reading” sections outside of webcomics-specific areas.
Business – The new volume benefits from the inclusion of a nuts and bolts section on business concerns. The artiste in me bristled a bit at talk of “pitches” and the like, but this kind of information is obviously valuable to the book’s target audience: people who have mastered the basics of putting together a short comic, but who are now perhaps putting together something more ambitious and considering eventually shopping it around to publishers. In a few short pages, Abel and Madden lay out the basics of who and what editors and literary agents are, as well as lots of basic information about contracts, copyright, page rates, distribution, and more.
Perspective – The book includes a basic primer in linear perspective, which the previous one did not. Having taught many perspective classes, this is a subject near and dear to me and I worried a bit about the forbidding language—equating “mathematically correct perspective” with “spending your life on one panel”— used in explaining that the book’s self-admitted “not 100% correct, but it WORKS” approach to perspective. Ultimately, though, Abel and Madden’s choice to skip the overly-technical aspects of linear perspective and stick with providing practical lessons cartoonists can directly apply to their work—things like how to evenly space regular objects (street lights, fence posts, etc.), and how to scale figures correctly within panels—was a wise one, given the scope of this book.
Minicomics – If you’ve ever been to an indie convention/festival like TCAF or SPX, you know that minicomics (self-published—and often hand-assembled—comics) constitute a vital subset of the indie comics “scene.” Drawing Words touched on minis, but Mastering Comics really digs into the process with a particularly strong minicomics chapter that addresses everything from basic layout and mockup processes to complex techniques like Japanese four-hole string binding.
As a testament to how jam-packed this book is with great technical and comics process information, I found it difficult to read through at a decent clip for this review because I so often encountered techniques that I wanted to incorporate into my own comics-making process or classroom activities that I wanted to fold into my own teaching. All but the most seasoned of comics pros are going to come away from Mastering Comics with a wealth of new knowledge about the comics-making process. This volume—and the series taken as a whole—rises above its peers by virtue of its strict focus on the down and dirty practical process of making a comic start to finish, largely avoiding the idiosyncratic author/cartoonist-specific bent of many recent comics how-to books. Mastering Comics adds to and improves upon the already-strong Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. There simply is no better straightforward course in comics-making than Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words/Mastering Comics series.
[Ben Towle is an Eisner-nominated cartoonist whose most recent book, Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean (with Sarah Stewart Taylor), a graphic novel for young adults, was released by Disney/Hyperion Books in 2010. The book has received accolades from such publications as The New York Times and Publishers Weekly and was a Junior Library Guild selection. His previous work includes the historical fiction graphic novel Midnight Sun as well as an earlier volume of comics folk tales, Farewell, Georgia, both from SLG Publishing. He's currently working on the webcomic, Oyster War.]