While colleges, universities and art schools have been busily adding comics-making classes—and in some cases, concentrations or even entire departments—in parallel with the current "graphic novel boom," good-quality textbooks to use in conjunction with those classes have been hard to come by. As I imagine other comics teachers have, for my classes, I've wound up cobbling together bits and pieces for my students, drawn from comics' scattershot history of "how-to" books—from venerable classics such as Will Eisner's Comics & Sequential Art and Jack Hamm's Cartooning the Head and Figure, to more recent works such as Scott McCloud's Making Comics. None of these books, though, offered a single, complete course of comics-making starting with fundamentals, covering the technical nuts and bolts, and culminating with a finished student-assembled comic book.
It should be no surprise that this is exactly what Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have set out to do with their new book on comics instruction, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, since both have been teaching comics at New York City's School of Visual Art for many years. The greatest strength of this book is that it's very obviously the result of real-life experience "in the trenches" trying out assignments, exercises and lessons on actual cartooning students and seeing what works and what doesn't. Processes that are taken for granted by working cartoonists but can often be difficult to introduce and explain to beginners, like doing thumbnail drawings of your pages, are explained here clearly and presented with ample examples of actual thumbnail drawings along with the final pages to which they correspond. (Compared to Making Comics, where even an accomplished cartoonist like McCloud mentions this vital process only in passing.)
Likewise, the authors have skillfully addressed one of the biggest classroom pitfalls, especially for the novice teacher: getting students beyond the "idea phase" and actually drawing. With an abundance of character-generating exercises, "story prompts," and other ready-to-go exercises, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures should leave no teacher with students stalled and staring at a blank page.
The book is structured to follow a standard fifteen week academic course schedule, but an accompanying website (www.dw-wp.com) will provide alternate curriculum plans, allowing the text to be adapted to other lengths of classes. Similarly, although the book is written with a classroom—or at least a group—environment in mind, Abel and Madden have provided numerous sidebars throughout, enabling any individual students (referred to throughout as "ronin") to adapt the coursework to singular study. Drawing Words is set up horizontally, in "landscape" format and designed with an attractive black/white/orange color scheme throughout. Occasionally, though, I found myself wishing function had been favored over form in places. For example, activities, homework critiques and sidebars are differentiated from one another solely by icons that are fairly similar in appearance (a white gloved hand with a pen = activity; a white-gloved hand with a pencil = homework critique) and I found myself often flipping back to the legend to decipher these. I had similar misgivings when I encountered an illustration of a pen staff that's meant to be brown but was instead printed in orange, along with an arrow and the word "brown" next to it, in order to preserve the books' color scheme.
Although the book's cover features a variety of images representative of various types of comics, including a superhero pictured mid-stride and a manga-esque woman, only a small handful of the book's examples were from manga sources and I noted only one example (a Kirby Fantastic Four panel) from any superhero genre material. One can hardly complain about this, though, given the stellar lineup of domestic general fiction cartoonists represented here. Sample panels and pages from artists like Charles Burns, Mike Mignola, Dan Clowes, E.C. Segar, Craig Thompson, Basil Wolverton, Tony Millionaire, Bud Fisher and many, many more are analyzed to highlight essential cartooning skills like inking with a nib or brush, setting up appealing panel compositions, leading the reader's eye through a page, and varying uses of titles and typefaces. Astute readers will also find a cartooning "in joke" or two, like a gag panel whose copyright indicia lists the artist as "Kalo," the fictional cartoonist from Seth's It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken.
Drawing Words features an excellent and much-needed rundown of some of cartooning's more obscure and difficult tools, from obvious items like sable brushes and t-squares to the more esoteric such as the Ames lettering guide, (whose included Cold War-era instructions were likely confusing even when initially written) proportion wheels and positionable mounting adhesive. I was initially taken aback by the book's complete lack of discussion about coloring, but given the teleological structure of the book—with everything building toward students creating their own comics on a black and white photocopier—this makes sense in context. Similarly, perspective, an absolutely essential tool for anyone drawing from imagination, as with comics, is mentioned only briefly. In this case, though, the authors direct the reader to specific texts on the subject—a wise choice when dealing with perspective, a subject where a cursory or incomplete discussion is often worse than none at all.
Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is an ambitious and successful work from two of the comics art form's most experienced instructors. Its focus on the basic fundamentals of visual storytelling and the nuts and bolts of cartooning craft—rather than on particular genres or styles—make this a broadly-applicable text that should be an asset to any upper level (high-school or above) cartooning class. I always look forward to teaching comics classes, but with the next class I teach, I'll be particularly delighted to skip the hours I usually spend at the photocopier putting together myriad handouts culled from dozens of sources and, instead, simply add, "Required text: Drawing Words and Writing Pictures" to my syllabus.
[Ben Towle is an Eisner- and Ignatz-nominated cartoonist known primarily for his work with SLG publishing, including the recent historical fiction graphic novel Midnight Sun. He's taught cartooning and comics classes at various institutions such as The Sawtooth School for Visual Art and The North Carolina Governor's School, as well as at workshops and lecturing engagements across the country. He's currently hard at work on a creator-owned story about turn of the century Chesapeake Bay oystermen and also on a biographical graphic novel for Hyperion books.]