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Fleen Book Corner: Making Comics

Scott McCloud is a genius; I use that word in its precise, Merriam-Webster’s sense of extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity, and as soon as this gets posted, I’m going to start brainstorming a way to get the terms Scott McCloud and deserves a MacArthur Fellowship into the common lexicon in the hopes that it reaches one of their nominators. If any work of creativity ever deserved widespread recognition, it’s Making Comics.

I don’t make comics; I read them and tell other people what I like. I always figured that the process of creating comics was sort of sausage-like, and that I was better off not knowing, but McCloud’s earlier works dissuaded me of that. Still, those were (repsectively) about what comics are, and what they could be, not how to make them. So when I sat down last week with MC, I wondered how much I would get it.

Answer: maybe not as much as my creator friends, but a hell of a lot more than I figured. McCloud’s accomplished two things that seem almost diametrically opposed: on the one hand he’s taken abstract, intuitive ideas and made their mechanical underpinnings clear and obvious; on the other hand, he’s taken very technical aspects and translated them into clear, plain English. He’s done it all in a self-describing structure, where every lesson is conveyed not merely by formal presentation, but by subtle example.

For instance, on page 33, he’s talking about panel layouts and making the flow of reading smooth and seamless. McCloud warns that a particular layout is dangerous — the reader doesn’t know which way to go and can miss panels or be yanked out of the story. There are ways to avoid the trap, and rather than tell us what they are, he just does them — page 33 uses the deadly panel combination, but there’s no confusion on the part of the reader. Like the storyteller he is (although he might dispute that label, see below) McCloud has opted to show, don’t tell.

The book is filled with such moments of awareness, where the reader suddenly realizes that McCloud’s been using all the techniques that he’s been talking about; we can tell what works because we know that it’s worked on us without having been hit over the head by it. The transfer of knowledge that McCloud achieves is more efficient and effective than almost anything else I’ve ever read. His love of simple, clear design is on display right from the table of contents, where each topic is listed in outline form (to show relationships) and accompanied by a small icon that expresses some part of the nature of the topic.

It’s a technique that I would have expected from Edward Tufte, and for anybody wanting to learn how to express complex structures in a straightforward manner, MC belongs on the shelf next to The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations.

What I found most striking about MC compared to the earlier books is McCloud’s treatment of webcomics, a topic near and dear to my heart. At the time of Understanding Comics, they didn’t exist (and the topic of digital tools and techniques was understandably absent); in Reinventing Comics, a fairly large firestorm kicked up, perhaps because McCloud intertwined his discussion of the evolving medium with a preference for certain economic models.

In MC, webcomics just are; they exist, they’re exploding, and any predictions McCloud might make, he acknowledges are subject to rapid aging (case in point: Rich Stevens bridging the worlds of newspaper syndication and webcomics scarcely a week prior to the book’s release).

Given McCloud’s famous ability to be able to talk and argue with anybody, no matter how vicious the difference of opinion, it’s not surprising that discussions of medium (webcomics and other new forms vs. traditional forms) are kept separate from the discussions of artistic philosophy. His now well-known “Four Tribes” model has less the here’s what’s going to happen tone that parts of RC had, and more of a here’s what I’ve noticed, and by the way, it’s a fluid situation tone.

It can still lead to some odd differences of opinion, though; McCloud places himself firmly in the Formalist camp, but I’ve been struck for 20 years more by his ability to tell a story and build characters that come alive, making him (in my eyes) more of an Animist. The lesson to be drawn, then, is that the labels shouldn’t get in the way of the work. The different approaches to making comics result in nothing more than different means to the same end. In this way, the tribes discussion (which I think everybody felt would be something of a lightning rod) hearkens back to the preface, where McCloud declares that when it comes to making comics, There are no rules. And here they are.

In all, as brilliant and well-argued (and in some places, polarizing) as UC and RC were, MC is a noticeably more mature (in the sense of well-aged, like a fine wine) work, as befits a man who draws himself a little rounder and a little grayer than he used to. Given that McCloud has stated several times that his next project will be a graphic novel of considerable length, the Comics series will likely remain a trilogy for some time. Honestly, though, it’s tough to see how there might need to be a fourth — this is a definitive work in the field, and will likely remain part of the canon for as long as there are things that we can still recognize as comics.

Editor’s note: Chapter Five of MC deals with the tools of making comics; given that certain aspects of this discussion are not easily expressed in printed form, McCloud is constructing a “Chapter 5 ½”, which should be available about this time next week. This review will be supplemented at that time, if necessary.

Gary —

We’ve talked about this in the past — I think that Understanding Comics should be required reading for anyone doing computer user interface work. On my shelf, it’s right next to Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theater

Looking forward to getting this one…

I am well and truly sure that Making Comics is the best book I’ve read about Making Comics, and I’ve read a lot, including Eisner stuff. I read the whole thing, then put it down, then read it again, more slowly.

I wish I’d had the chance to pick up this book a year ago, back when I first started making comics (no pun intended). It took three months of scrounging message boards and obsolete “making of…” features on cartoonists’ websites to pick on even a quarter of what’s covered in this book. Hopefully Chapter 5 1/2 will prove just as useful.

I think my brain just doubled in size.

[…] Gary Tyrell reviews Scott McCloud’s new book Making Comics for Fleen. […]

Reading Making Comics makes you wonder why McCloud would mention his desire to work on a graphic novel. Similar to his last 2 books it is not only an educative but also a really enjoyable read.

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