Editor’s note: When I opened up the package from First Second books containing a review copy of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, my first thought was, “Wow, this looks really good.” After flipping through the gigantic comic book textbook, my second thought was, “Wow, I’m woefully under-qualified to review this.”
So I dropped an email to Matt Silady. Not only is Matt the creator of the Eisner-nominated The Homeless Channel, but he’s also a teacher at the California College of the Arts. Matt was gracious enough to review the book for us …
by Matt Silady
When I was teaching eighth grade in central Illinois, textbooks were the bane of my existence. At best, they contained a few decent articles and a nice illustration or two. At worst, they were curriculum-controlling paper bricks that prevented the kind of flexible and inventive lesson planning necessary to tackle a classroom of hyperactive thirteen year olds. Each new class of kids brought its own set of challenges and the one-size-fits-all mentality of traditional textbooks was no formula for success. As far as I was concerned, the best place to keep a textbook was at the bottom of a locker hidden away for nine glorious months.
So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I initially approached First Second’s new comic book textbook. Marketed as “a definitive course from concept to comic in 15 lessons,” the book had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures has three aces up its sleeve: Matt Madden, Jessica Abel, and a very promising companion website supported by First Second Books.
Madden, best known for his quirky experiment in comics form, 99 Ways to Tell a Story, brings his appreciation for “constraint based” comics to the classroom setting. Harvey award winning writer/artist, Jessica Abel, provides her own a wealth of comics experience and her personal advice produces some of the real stand-out moments found throughout the book. As for the text itself, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures follows in the footsteps of Eisner’s classic Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, McCloud’s Making Comics and the surprisingly comprehensive Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel by Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber. Personally, I’ve used excerpts from all three in my own comic book workshops. When I first sat down with a copy of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, my chief concern was whether the text would go in the pile of potentially useful resources or directly onto the required reading list for next semester’s workshop.
And perhaps that’s an unfair measure for the book’s success in light of my predisposition for giddily throwing textbooks out the classroom window. But after spending some time with the text, I’m confident that Jessica and Matt don’t have to worry about their new book suffering a similar fate.
Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures provides an excellent foundation for the introductory comic book classroom. Among the text’s greatest strengths is the breadth of information that the authors attempt to cover. From the comic book basics: panel layout, penciling, inking, and lettering to the art of story: narrative arcs, character development, and world building, Madden and Abel manage to touch upon all the most relevant concerns for first time comic book creators. Similarly impressive is the nuts and bolts examination of artist tools and techniques. Whether it’s brush care, ink selection, or optimal drawing posture, DP&WP has it covered. The book caters nicely to both the classroom and the DIY crowd. Advice on tackling the neighborhood Xerox machine ranges from “Remember that all photocopiers are not created equal,” to “Bring more money than you think you need because you will screw up somehow. We all do.” One imagines the authors have spent many a night staring haplessly at their own mistakes and finally have a chance to help the rest of the world avoid similar copy shop trauma.
The impetus for such a comprehensive approach to the material can be attributed to Matt and Jessica’s decision to write the book for three different types of comic creators: the Classroom Student, the Ronin, and the Nomad. Although the text is designed to compliment a traditional sixteen-week semester classroom, it would work just as well for an aspiring independent comic book creator or as a guide for smaller, informal workshop groups. Having fallen into each of these categories at one time or another myself, I really appreciate what Madden and Abel have accomplished here. While an experienced artist may snicker at the pages devoted to correct posture and stretching exercises, it’s darn good advice for the beginning creator. I wish someone had pulled me aside back when I started working long hours at the art table and given me a few tips. It sure would have saved me the embarrassment of asking experienced inker John Heebink why my hand always hurt at the end of the day. His answer: I was holding my tool too hard. (Hey, no snickering there in the back.)
In terms of using this text in my own classroom, it helps that I agree with Matt and Jessica’s overall approach to creating comics. With a healthy emphasis on working with thumbnails, crafting dynamic single panels, and unfolding the complexities of the sequential page, the text guides students through the creative process while relying on clear, engaging illustrations and a diverse assortment of examples from the comic book greats. I particularly enjoyed their take on the essential ingredients of a successful narrative arc and the relationship between story and character. It’s in these sections that some of Jessica’s contributions to the book really shine. By framing instructional passages with tales of her own success and failures as an artist, she lends credibility to the pages of storytelling advice that follow.
Whenever Matt or Jessica’s voice inhabits the text, DW&WP is at its best. Reminiscent of Scott McCloud’s informal, yet sophisticated, delivery of content in Making Comics, the reader gets a feel for the creators behind the lesson plans. From time to time, things do get a little too prescriptive for my taste. The text would have you believe that putting extensive details into your thumbnails “is a huge mistake.” Well, it might be. But it really depends on the artist. Joshua Cotter’s thumbnails for Skyscrapers of the Midwest practically deserve a book all on their own. It should be noted that the exercises, homework assignments, and extra credit activities found throughout the book are, in fact, quite inventive and clearly written. It’s no surprise to me that sections of the book were piloted in actual classrooms before final publication. There’s a wealth of challenging activities that should be relatively easy to adapt to the needs of any individual group of students. Other highlights include Madden and Abel’s “60 Panels That Just Might Work” which reads like Wally Wood’s “22 Panels That Always Work” on steroids and an entire appendix devoted to making mini-comics.
Now, I’m not entirely sold on the physical design of the book itself. While its size and shape allows the text to lie open on an art table or in front of students in the classroom setting, it’s a bit unwieldy to simply flip through and read. I commend the designers for developing a distinct look for the layout that is easy to navigate and a pleasure to read. There are times, however, when the oversized dimensions of the page aren’t used to their fullest potential. The section on panel transitions, for example, is basically a recap of McCloud’s work in Understanding Comics spread out over eight of DW&WP’s landscape pages. While the ample white space could be used for taking notes, I’d much prefer to see more content relating to the complexities of panel-to-panel transitions taking advantage of the space. One of the most fascinating aspects of making comics is the fact that what happens between the panels is often far more important than what happens within the panel itself.
Among a few other small complaints, the section addressing figure drawing feels a bit cursory. Aspiring artists would probably be better served investing in a separate book on illustration. But that’s okay. Drawing Words & Writing Pictures has one final ace up its sleeve: Matt Madden and Jessica Abel’s recently launched DW&WP companion website. Created as a platform for sharing lesson plans, showing off the results of activities, and general collaboration between students, teachers, and the authors, First Second has offered a way to continually expand on and enrich the content of the textbook itself. And that’s where the nightmare of an inflexible, one-size-fits-all text may simply be a thing of the past. With the ability to continually adapt to the needs of the users, Abel and Madden’s new textbook seems to have a bright future ahead of it. Beyond the plans for the website, a future volume of DW&WP promises to cover advanced skills and comic book production, publishing, and distribution. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing how the website develops and making a final decision if it and the book are the right fit for my next group of students in the fall.