Writer, Editor, Author

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 3

This time, I look at the how-to-make-comics books on my shelves.

Alan McKenzie’s How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips was the first book I ever saw that specifically devoted itself to this particular topic. I saw it in the bookstore at the University of Arizona when I was a freshman in 1987 and was particularly interested in seeing what comics scripts looked like and how pencils differed from inks — both topics that seem to always confuse fans when they first ask about them. McKenzie’s book featured some nice historical material on comics and some great tips on how to learn to draw everything you need to be able to draw to do comics. He creates a sample comic in the book, complete with a full script, pencils, inks and colors. The book also covers production issues as they were in the day, i.e., lettering pages before they were inked and how to hand separate color plates. It’s a great book, even though it did nothing to help me learn to draw. My efforts in basic drawing class earned me only one of only two C’s in my college career, convincing me that drawing was not where my talents lay. It looks like this has been revised and updated for a couple of new editions, and should be pretty easy to find if you are so inclined.

Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art is a classic in the field and the first book to explore the specific qualities of comics as an artform. I enjoy this book more now that I’ve read a significant amount of Eisner’s work. The book appears to me to be more useful for artists who already know how to draw in applying their skills to comics. As I’ve discovered, it’s not easy to learn to make art (and, I imagine, to teach it) when so much of the experience is subjective and difficult to communicate through words.

I almost put Writers on Comics Scriptwriting in the interviews section, but decided that this book by Mark Salisbury (and its sequel volume) fits better in the how-to category. This is a very nice collection of lengthy Q-and-A interviews with top comics writers on the craft of creating comics. Among the folks in volume one are Peter David, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Kurt Busiek, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Warren Ellis. Volume two (by Tom Root and Andrew Kardon) covers Brian Azzarello, Dave Sim, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Mike Carey, Kevin Smith, Greg Rucka and Brian Michael Bendis. I believe both books are currently out of print, but they are worth tracking down if you’re interested in writing comics.

Along the same lines is Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers and Panel Two: More Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, both edited by Nat Gertler. Each volume includes a number of complete scripts by such talents as Busiek, Dwayne McDuffie, Jeff Smith, Neil Gaiman, etc. They’re fascinating for how different they all are, from formatting variations to overall tone. Most of the books whose scripts are published in these volumes are indie books that are easy to track down for comparison to the final product.

Another good overall primer on the thought that goes into comics is The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, by Denny O’Neil. This was part of an entire series DC did a few years back on how to make comics. While it does less in terms of showing complete scripts, it does discuss what goes in to making a comic work in the DC Universe, up to and including examples of how to map out and execute mega-crossovers.

There is no equivalent book from Marvel, but I do want to point out that anyone interested in seeing how books are put together on that side of town to track down the Rough Cut editions of Avengers (Vol. 3) #1, Thor (Vol. 2) #1, Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #1 and X-Force #102. These editions feature the complete plot and the pencils to those issues, giving a nice look at Marvel-style writing.

Few names are as well-regarded in the field as Alan Moore, so it’s a no-brainer that Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics from Avatar Press is well worth the read. This is a slim volume that collects a couple of essays Moore wrote on the topic, and they talk mainly about approach and execution with few examples. Moore’s scripts are legendary for being long and extremely detailed — try to read the full scripts in the supplementary volumes in the Absolute Editions of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  and see how far you get before mental exhaustion sets in.

Lastly, there’s Comic Book Lettering: The Comic-Craft Way, by Richard Starkings and John “JG” Roshell. I include this because I used to do print design and production work and enjoyed this peek at how to put all the pieces together exactly into the final package. If you don’t want to know what point size and kerning settings to use on comics type, this may not be for you. But reading this would be essential for anyone looking to letter a comic.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  2. I love these kind of books. And most of them in this entry I didn't know about. (I do own the DC book).

    And about the last one, you might already know that DC also put out a Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics as well.

    Anyway, I'm glad you included Writers on Comics Scriptwriting in here, as it looks really interesting to me because I like to read things in Q & A format– sometimes you're not getting anything technical, but just seeing things like what the writer, or whomever the subject of the interview is, was thinking can be just as valuable as inspiration and/or motivation.

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