Monday, January 12, 2015


As comics and graphic novels gain reader attention—thanks not only to the books themselves, but through blockbuster film adaptations and popular TV series—more and more creative people find themselves wondering how to go about making their own comics. Many of those people are likely to think, “Hey, I’ll see what they’ve got down at the library!” The problem, of course, is that most librarians don’t really know how to develop a collection of this nature. So, in place of a typical review this week, I’m doing something special and listing the books best suited, in my opinion, to any “how to make comics” collection.

How-to books have a lengthy history in the comic book medium; heck, I even wrote and illustrated one back in 2004!* Now, when it comes to this subject matter, I am picky. There are quite a few terrific books on this topic, but there are also tons of bad ones: books produced by people whose only credentials regarding comics seem to be the production of how-to books. You won’t find any books like that on this list. What you will find are books I believe—based on my experience both as a professional writer/cartoonist and a college educator on the subject of comics creation—impart valuable lessons to the reader. The fact that a book's not on this list doesn’t automatically condemn it as being worthless, but the works that do appear here have my unequivocal endorsement. In fact, most appeared on the required reading list for the courses I’ve taught.

This list doesn't really have many "how-to-draw" books on it; you've probably already ordered a number of those, and this list is focused on comics in particular rather than basic drawing technqniques. That said, if Burne Hogarth's Dynamic Anatomy (ISBN 978-0823015528), Dynamic Figure Drawing (ISBN 978-0823015771), and Dynamic Light and Shade (ISBN 978-0823015818) aren't in your how-to-draw collection, your collection is lacking! Jack Hamm's Cartooning the Head and Figure (ISBN 978-0399508035) is also a giant of the art-form, and deserves a spot on your shelves.

The instructional works of Scott McCloud
In his books Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (ISBN 978-0060976255), Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form (ISBN 978-0060953508), and Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels (ISBN 978-0060780944), writer/cartoonist Scott McCloud has built a body of instruction on the subject of comics that has established him as possibly the leading thinker on the topic. McCloud’s work—which is presented in graphic novel format—is not designed for children; he explores complex topics that are simply beyond most readers under the age of 12. But in these three books, McCloud dissects the medium with scientific precision and lays bare its innermost workings. Understanding Comics and Making Comics are must-haves; Reinventing Comics (a tragically misunderstood book that wasn’t well received when initially published) is best suited to readers who’ve already got some comics creation under their belts and want to change how they think about comics.

The instructional works of Will Eisner
The late Will Eisner was a true pioneer in American comics. In addition to producing his groundbreaking comic strip “The Spirit,” Eisner was one of the first US-based comics creators to explore the long-form graphic novel format, and among the first to teach comics at the collegiate level. His books Comics and Sequential Art  (ISBN 978-0393331264) and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (ISBN 978-0393331271) have their roots in the comics courses Eisner taught beginning in the 1970s and, while not as methodological or as well-organized as the works of McCloud or Abel and Madden (see below), are treasure troves of comics instruction.

The instructional works of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (ISBN 978-1596431317) and Mastering Comics (ISBN 978-1596436176) present top-notch instructional material in a format mirroring the week-to-week format of a college course and drawing upon numerous stylistic examples from the full breadth of the medium. Jessica Abel and Matt Madden truly understand how to create comics and how to teach the subject. These books are among the best on the subject, and are great resources for learning comics creation from the ground up.

The DC Comics Guide to…
This series—produced by one of the American comic book industry’s “Big Two” publishers—is created by comics professionals and compartmentalizes the comics craft into its various component disciplines. (Most mainstream professionals do only one job on a comic; it’s only the “auteurs” of the indie comics scene who do everything on their own.) These books offer plenty of instruction, but like most good books on the subject, are best suited for teens and adults.
The DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics: Inside the Art of Visual Storytelling by Carl Potts (ISBN 978-0385344722)
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neill (ISBN 978-0823010271)
The DC Comics Guide to Pencilling Comics by Klaus Janson (ISBN 978-0823010288)
The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics by Klaus Janson (ISBN 978-0823010295)
The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics by Mark Chiarello and Todd Klein (ISBN 978-0823010301)
The DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics by Freddie E. Williams II (ISBN 978-0823099238)

The instructional works of Stan Lee
Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics (ISBN 978-0823000838) by Stan Lee, et al: Though Stan Lee co-created some of the most important American comics properties, he’s a writer, not an artist. That said, this book (which I don’t think Stan wrote, either; his name on this volume is branding, I believe, rather than actual attribution) collects many valuable lessons on basic drawing, composition, and layout/storytelling for comics. Well worth the money regardless of its curious title.
How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (ISBN 978-0671530778) by Stan Lee and John Buscema: A landmark work—the first on the subject of drawing for superhero comics—this one remains a classic despite being rather dated and not terribly in-depth. Its simple lessons (designed in the 1970s by legendary artist John Buscema with flavor text added by Lee) are easily grasped and remain worth learning. A classic for a reason.

“But Mike…where’s the manga?”
If you can find them, there’s an excellent series of books produced by Hikaru Hayashi teaching various manga aesthetics. They’re the only English-language books on the subject I feel comfortable recommending, but sadly, they’re out of print right now. But allow me to put my on art teacher hat (unworn for far too long) and pontificate for a moment

The manga style of drawing is just that: a style. While there are dozens upon dozens of books on drawing manga—many of them churned out by those people I mentioned who have no published credentials in the field, but produce how-to books with gleeful abandon—most of them concern themselves with only the aesthetics of manga. They teach you how to draw reflections in those giant eyes; how to draw manga hair; how to draw schoolgirl uniforms. These are lessons would-be mangaka (manga creators) will want to learn, obviously, but the fact is, these books are largely interchangeable, because the aesthetic is all they convey.

Comics are not a single aesthetic, nor are comics as a medium defined by their aesthetics.

To properly create comics, one must learn the art of visual narrative and the creation of living, breathing characters, then combine that with some technical know-how, which is the stuff the other books mentioned in this post do. As long as new creators begin learning from the fundamentals—how to tell a story in panel-to-panel form—the rest is just style, and that can (and will) emerge later, and can be learned from any number of sources. An artist, even a young one, who understands how comics work will be much better positioned to develop as an artist, having learned those precious storytelling skills first. She can learn to emulate the aesthetic by simply reading the comics she likes to look at.

There you have it…an instant “how to draw comics” collection! May it serve you—and the budding writers and artists in your library—well! I’d also like to remind you that I created a pamphlet teaching some basic cartooning skills that I’ve made available from right here (just right-click and “Save As…”). You can print these out and keep them near your how-to collection, and send them home with interested readers!

*Make Your Own Comics: The Small Press Primer by Mike Hall, ISBN 978-0974139814. Don't bother tracking it down: it’s long out-of-print, emphasized self-publishing over the nuts and bolts of making comics, and, frankly, it's totally outdated now. I don’t recommend adding this museum piece to your collection, even if you can find the thing. Some year I intend to produce an all-new edition.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Writers: William M. Gaines, Al Feldstein, Wallace Wood, Harry Harrison (with scholarly material by Bill Mason, Ted White, and S.C. Ringgenberg)
Artists: Wallace Wood (with Harry Harrison)
$29.99, Fantagraphics Books, 240 pgs.
ISBN  978-1606998052

Settle in, gang. This review starts with a bit of a history lesson.

In the early 1950s, American newsstands sold all kinds of comics: Westerns, superheroes, romance, teen humor, funny cartoon animals, war stories…you name it. But the top-selling comics of the day were the horror, science fiction, and crime comics perfected by EC Comics and imitated by a slew of other publishers.

The EC imitators, however, were just that: Johnny Come-Latelys in a field defined by the EC style. EC boasted a stable of cartoonists whose work was, simply put, the best the medium had to offer at the time. Now-legendary names such as Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, and Johnny Craig all worked under the EC imprint, as did the artist whose work is collected in the volume up for review this week: Wallace “Wally” Wood.

Eventually a wave of anti-comics hysteria all but killed the EC line and restricted American comics to safe, easily-palatable children’s fare,* a stunted quasi-life from which US comics didn’t begin to emerge until the 1980s.** But comics fans remembered the glory days of the EC line; they kept the legend alive and paved the way for subsequent generations of readers to discover the magic of these wild and inventive comics. Previously available only as expensive collectibles and tattered flea market finds, low-quality reprints and expensive small-press collected editions, the EC line has at last returned in high-grade formats worthy of the material. It’s long overdue, but EC’s best output is now accessible by a wide audience, finally giving this valuable part of our cultural and artistic heritage artistic the recognition it deserves.

(The author steps away from the lectern and apologizes to his audience, who might not have gone into this knowing that he has taught college classes on the evolution and creation of comics.)

Modern readers can engage with this material in two different ways. Dark Horse Comics reprints the individual EC titles (Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, and others) in lavish color editions, presenting the stories in the order they were published in the 1950s. They’re wonderful books, and if you can afford them, they’re worth their hefty cover price of $49.99 per volume. The subject of this review is from a different series: the Fantagraphics EC Artists Library, which collects the material by artist and subject matter, making for a very different reading experience and—because the art is presented in black-and-white—a much cheaper one, too.*** This twelfth volume in the series, SPAWN OF MARS AND OTHER STORIES, collects the science fiction stories drawn for EC by one of its most talented creators, the aforementioned Wallace Wood.

Wally Wood’s name is, among comics scholars, virtually synonymous with the phrase “EC science fiction.” In these stories drawn for EC’s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy titles, Wood crafts a science fiction universe that is at once terrifying and alluring, filled with fascinatingly complex technology, rugged heroes and gorgeous heroines, and weird, menacing aliens. Wood’s artwork, seen here at varying stages of its development, eventually matures into a lavish style that even the most jaded modern reader cannot help but appreciate. The art is the star of the show here.

The writing, in contrast, is almost simple. For example, the stories “Rescued!” and “The Gray Cloud of Death!” are essentially two approaches to the same basic tale! These stories are heavy on pulpy narrative exposition, and most culminate in a trademark EC twist, but that’s not a criticism. Rather, the overwrought heavy-handedness is part of the fun. It pairs quite nicely with Wood’s moody lighting, realistic textures, and penchant for detail upon detail. In total, this is a genuinely special reading experience.

I’ve already written far more than you probably cared to read, so I’ll conclude simply by saying this: if you’ve got serious art-hounds in your patron population, this book will be a hit.

I suppose I could’ve saved us both a lot of time by leading with that…

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: This is a thick, well-made hardcover at a reasonable price, and since the individual volumes in the EC Artists Library have no narrative relationship with one another, you’re free to purchase them one at a time as needed or requested.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: Fans of science fiction and horror should respond well to this material, even if they favor one genre and don’t think of themselves as fans of the other. Some readers may be familiar with the TALES FROM THE CRYPT title, but unaware of the other comics EC published; if your patrons like TFTC, suggest they range a bit further afield and try this volume, too. And finally, art buffs will, of course, go nuts over the stunning black-and-white reproduction of Wood’s art.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Some science fiction and horror violence

*Yes, that happened…the United States Senate even got involved! SPAWN OF MARS contains an essay touching (briefly) on this topic, but for more on this strange and fascinating sequence of events, see David Hajdu’s terrific book THE 10-CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA (ISBN 978-0312428235).

**Technically, the underground “comix” of the 1960s and ‘70s were the first American comics to challenge the idea that comics were exclusively for children. It wasn’t until the 1980s that mainstream publishers began to push the envelope, though, and really, that’s the watershed moment: the undergrounds may have paved the way creatively and even ideologically, but it was this mainstream paradigm shift that eventually led to the broad, diverse comics marketplace we enjoy now. We’re still decades behind the French, but that’s another article entirely.

***It’s also a lot easier to appreciate the astonishing level of detail ECs artists employed when you see the art in B&W, which is why publisher Russ Cochran’s fabled Complete EC Library reprints were so sought-after by collectors for so long…but again, that’s another article.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


By Mike Mignola and a variety of writers and artists
$24.99, Dark Horse Comics, 261 pgs.
ISBN 978-1616555108

Writer/artist Mike Mignola’s genre-bending Hellboy series—equal parts two-fisted pulp heroics and supernatural horror—is one of the independent comics scene’s most enduring titles. This collection is a bit of an oddity in the Hellboy library in that (with the exception of the first couple stories in the book) it isn’t Mignola’s work. Rather, this is a collection of short stories by an all-star lineup of creators, originally produced to coincide with the release of the first Hellboy film in 2004, but released only recently in hardcover form.

The stylistic approaches to these stories are all over the map, as one would expect from a collection of this nature. The stories take place in different times and places, highlighting the range of tales one can tell in the wide-open playground that is the Hellboy universe. Some are funny, most are action-packed, and a couple are genuinely eerie. It’s a lot of fun seeing Hellboy in the hands of creators other than Mignola and his usual collaborators, and fans of the series will find much to appreciate here.

TIPS FOR LIBRARIANS: From a librarian’s perspective, the book’s only real shortcoming is that it isn’t a very good introduction to Hellboy or the world he inhabits. If you’ve got room in your collection development budget for only one Hellboy book, this isn’t the best option. Instead, go with either HELLBOY Vol. 1: SEED OF DESTRUCTION (ISBN 978-1593070946) or, if you can afford it, HELLBOY LIBRARY EDITION Vol. 1: SEED OF DESTRUCTION AND WAKE THE DEVIL (ISBN 978-1593079109), which collects the first two Hellboy story arcs in one hardcover edition.

READERS’ ADVISORY TIPS: Readers who enjoy genre mash-ups, rejoice…this book has them all! The stories herein should also resonate with fans of pulp action-adventure, horror, and mythology.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Horror violence; some nudity; some adult language; material some readers may find ideologically offensive