Comics 101: How-to & History Lessons from the Pros, May 2007, TwoMorrows Publishing
contributors: Bret Blevins, Mike Manley, BobMcLeod, Danny Fingeroth, Roy Thomas, John Morrow, Michael Eury
Today's Free Comic Book Day expose is rife with paradoxes. For example, the three (only three?) free comics I read today aren't really comics at all, but rather comic book sized how-to guides for creating comics. Further, from the contributors mentioned above to Kevin Maguire and Joe Kubert in Wizard's How to Draw offering, to Colleen Doran and Tom Nguyen in Impact University volume #3, opportunists that scored these three issues were exposed to some of the best talents in the industry, yet not via comics content, but rather prose-driven instruction. Sure, Nguyen embellishes his drawing suggestions with dynamic illustrations, but nothing beats his inks on top of Doug Mahnke's pencils -- though I'm grateful to observe that his talents exceed mere "tracer" status. Indeed, today's reading experience was extremely education, and though I only devoured three issues, the breadth of their material was more than comprehensive enough for a single evening's musings.
And soon said we geeks couldn't read books without pictures. As long as they're books about books without pictures . . .
First of all, obviously, Comics 101, Wizard, and Impact all presented the standard eight-head high stick figure skeleton of the average comic book character, but I must confess, I preferred Blevins' scholarly approach in the former than the pop oriented how-to suggestions of the latter two issues. As I mentioned last December in A Comic A Day, I had the privilege of meeting Bret Blevins in in Prescott, Arizona, where he was kind enough to sketch my favorite B-listers Cloak & Dagger (whom he illustrated in Strange Tales volume 2) for free. Colleen Doran and Jim Calafiore are excellent instructors on paper, but my unique opportunity to behold Blevins put this beginner's course in action on paper in real time reinforced the importance of these basic steps. Otherwise, my only critique would've been the sheer similarity of these three issues in this regard; since Free Comic Book Day is a cooperative effort, these companies would've benefited from discussing their instructional content before pulling excerpts from their previously published guides. Contrary to my tastes, I guess I'm suggesting that the least cloak and dagger tactics here, the better.
(Blogger's note: When I scan that Blevins sketch, I'll finally post it here in all of its glory. Really, it's very good.)
Segments on perspective and dynamic covers/pin-ups were abundant between these three issues, as well, and as an aspiring artist, truly, it wasn't anything I hadn't read of referenced before. Since these issues were free, I'd recommend them to children or adolescents struggled with their skills and seeking inexpensive instructions, especially since Maguire's visuals are so amusing, what with his exaggerated facial references, the kind of bwa-ha-ha shtick that made Justice League International such a memorable five years of superhero frivolity. If anything, multiple chapters on the same cornerstones of illustration simply provide the perspective that these founding steps are that important.
On a sidenote, I was surprised to read that Wizard Magazine is "sold in 40 countries and translated into five languages," according to its sampling's introduction. I've never liked Wizard and had always been perplexed by its writers' incessant need to interject sophomoric humor in what could otherwise be considered inside-scoop journalism. Its trademarked "Twisted Toyfare Theater" was funny until every article was written in that tongue-in-cheek style, claiming allegiance to comics while inadvertently mocking the material like a high school bully that just found an issue of Sad Sack in your locker. (Google the Frank Miller/Wizard incident; apparently at some con Miller held up an issue and proclaimed, "This represents everything that's wrong with comics today." Of course, it took Miller two years to get his statement out, but . . . I'm kidding! That's only when he asked Jim Lee to draw it . . . Arg! See what reading Wizard does to you?) This freebie was tame in comparison to their usual monthly romp, but I'm wondering how superhero fart jokes are translated into five different languages without losing some of that definitive Western humor? How do you say Skeletor in German? But I digress . . .
The most interesting columns of all of these issues were Impact's "Art Critique" by Bob McLeod and Danny Fingeroth's "Top 10 Tips for Writers." In an industry that touts creativity, both columnists suggest that wanna-be creators mimic their idols' styles to develop a voice of their own. I understand the point but am amused that two separate professionals would recommend it in the same volume. Further, while the "Art Critique" analyzes some hapless artist's submission page, which is a common practice in the con circuit, Fingeroth tells writers that they are both the industry's largest commodity and most overlooked resource. If you aren't already in the writing business, the likelihood of getting noticed is slim to none. (Gail Simone asserts this in her Impact introduction, as well.) I've never understood why the industry hasn't streamlined a submissions or portfolio process for writers; artists have it so easy, with their draw-a-page thing. Editors have little time as it is, rewriting origins sequences and killing off iconic characters to boost sales and what not, but a one-page plot pitch would make for some amusing toilet reading, no? Really, the tip Fingeroth neglected, and that McLeod endorsed, was, "To be a writer, don't write. Learn to draw and folks will think you can write later, like Todd McFarlane."
Truly, the ultimate dichotomy of the comic book industry contrasts the historical essays about comics by Roy Thomas and Michael Eury with the very how-to-draw genre of these three comics. The history of comics is as compelling as the stories this medium tells, and every account of those early boiler room days of drawing impresses upon me the raw creative energy of that era that I envy those founding fathers. Can you believe that the most coveted comic in history, Action Comics #1, is just a cut and paste job of rejected newspaper strips, particularly in the context of the fine art of page layout today? That's the paradox, that publishers were so quick to crank out material that I'm convinced the most respected old timers in the business didn't implement these careful, thorough sketch-to-ink practices Mike Wieringo and Joe Quesada say we should use. The Golden Age assembly line pales to the indie artist's action figure ridden loft apartment drawing desk . . . and look at the difference in their sales figures. Could I have just solved the comics sales slump of the past decade?
I did appreciate Fingeroth's seventh point, which implied that writing perfectly isn't as important as writing to completion. Starting a project is hard enough, but finishing one is even more taxing to the self-criticizing wanna-be. Yes, I'm speaking from experience. The effort to create a comic is indeed an internal struggle, but educational material like these issues proves that knowing is half the battle. Doing is just another front, entirely.