Should something this educational be so much fun to read?
Adventures In Cartooning (First Second) is a collaboration between James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost that grew out of a class assignment from Sturm’s Center for Cartoon Studies, and it’s part glossary of terms, part how-to book and part funny adventure story.
While all those parts might suggest something stitched together, there’s nothing patchwork about the results: This is lighthearted little graphic novel that just so happens to teach readers about cartooning on the fly, perhaps most elegantly and eloquently when simply being an excellent example of solid cartooning.
“Once upon a time…a princess tried to make a comic…” the book begins, and we see a princess made of super-simple shapes (round head atop a rectangle body with lines for arms and tiny oval hands) sitting at a table.
“I just can’t draw well enough to make a comic!!!” she cries, and in a poof of smoke a little, floating, even-more-simply-rendered elf appears to declare “That’s not true!!!”
He’s The Magic Cartooning Elf, and he helps people make comics. After asking the princess if she can draw a series of very simple things, he leads her to a “real-life comic book adventure on the next page,” one completely assembled from simply rendered objects (mountains, bats, fish, a tower, trees, clouds, etc).
Thus begins the story of a princess who was captured by a dragon—a dragon who hordes candy instead of treasure—and the brave knight who wants to save her.
The knight asks the Magic Cartooning Elf how to find the dragon, and they strike a deal: “If you let me tell you about comics and cartooning, I’ll help you find the dragon.”
The Elf explains the mechanics of comics (panels, gutters, etc), but eventually the knight just wants to get on with things, and the Elf leaves the knight and his sweet-toothed horse Edward to fend for themselves. They do so fairly admirably, conquering various challenges, but, in the end, our heroes will have to take up pencil and marker to draw themselves out of trouble.
That’s followed by a few pages of the “Elf’s Cartooning Basics,” which explains things like motion lines and Z’s symbolizing sleeping and so on, and offers a break-down of the various simple shapes that went in to building the characters.
And they are extremely simple. Not quite stick figures, but not too far removed from stick figures either. As the creators explained to our own Michael C. Lorah when he interviewed them about the book a couple of months ago, the idea with the simplicity is to be able to look past the act of drawing to get to the storytelling beneath it.
Being able to draw extremely well and being able to draw good comics are, of course, two completely different things, and if you read many mainstream comics, I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of artists who are really great designers, draftsman and/or draw-ers, but don’t quite know their way around a comic book page.
Minimizing the importance of drawing by stripping out the details, Sturm and company ably demonstrate exactly how comics work.
It’s tempting to say something along the lines of, “If Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a college textbook, this is a grade school primer on the same subject.” But I think that might mischaracterize Adventures in Cartooning as something strictly for kids.
It is for kids of course, but it’s also for grown-ups, those brand-new to comics, those who have read them their whole life, those that think about making them and those that already make them. In fact, I can’t imagine any one in any aspect of comics who wouldn’t enjoy this book…and probably benefit from reading and internalizing its lessons.