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.


  1. Thanks for this post, Mike! Do you have any suggestions for book about what to do with your comics once you've made them: how to publish them (DIY or with a publisher) and how to break into the market?

    1. That's a pretty broad subject; I know because I tackled it in my 2004 book! I'm not certain what books on that subject are available right now, to be honest. Self-publishing is easy, though: if you just want to see your book in print, use a print-on-demand service like Ka-Blam ( who specializes in printing comics. It's a good way to get a few copies of your book which you can then sell at cons or via the Web. If you want to get someone to publish your book, visit each prospective publisher's website, read their submissions guidelines, and submit the material they require for consideration. That's really about all I can say without writing on the topic for days!