Making Comics

Making Comics by Scott McCloud. Harper, 2006. 264p. $22.95.

I’ll admit to a certain attraction/antipathy to Scott McCloud’s work. On one hand he has made plain a number of elements of the workings of comics. On the other hand there is a certain tendency to elevate him to the level of some kind of genius. The latter isn’t really his fault, but it grates on the nerves at times anyway. So, perhaps moreso than most, this review is in no way objective.

Understanding Comics
, the first of his series of non-fictional comics about comics, brought forward a number of formal ideas about comics (panel transition, closure, etc.) though often in a superficial way. Reinventing Comics, the second in the series, well… what I can say, I’m not sure I ever got all the way through it the first time, let alone the second (or more) reading(s) any real comments would require. It has been, as far as I’ve seen, much less referenced than the preceding book with the possible exception of certain webcomics related arguments.

So now McCloud brings us a third book, Making Comics, a kind of introductory how-to to comics creation. It’s an interesting move from theory to praxis, that I don’t think takes as much advantage of this move as it could. On a general level, there is a lot of great introductory material in the book. McCloud goes over a few major parts of comic creation: choice of moment, choice of frame, choice of image, choice of word, choice of flow. These elements encompass a great part of a comic and its creation. The discussion of each is brief, and, while I can see its use for novices, the material is too brief for a more advanced creator. That’s probably a invalid point, as it’s obvious this book is meant for a beginning creator, someone new to comics.

If one compares the great amount of time spent discussing facial expressions (22 pages)–how they are formed by muscles and a system of six basic expressions from which all expressions are formed– or body language (18 pages) with the amount of time spent on any of the other topics (choice of moment (8 pages), choice of flow (5 pages), choice of image (4 pages)), one might think that certain areas are given much less time than they deserve. The concept of page layouts is almost completely ignored, only vaguely referred to in the “choice of flow,” a section which itself is extremely abbreviated with statements like “the compositions and motions in your frames can help guide the readers’ eyes, but make sure they’re being guided in the right direction” (33) that are not followed up with any tips on how to do this (a pretty important comics skill, I think).

This completely biased sampling of the page length sections might tell you a little bit about McCloud’s bias throughout the book. He is very much focused on the psychological realist mode, which comes through in the emphasis on realist character creation, emotional impact of the stories, and chapter headings such as “Stories for Humans.” Is this bias necessarily bad? No, but it is pointed out enough that it started to bug me.

McCloud loves to make lists and delineate systems, from the above five choices, to his seven types of word/picture combinations (which seem to exist more on a scale of text/word redundance/interdependence than as any discrete categories), to the six basic expressions, to his four types of comics creators. It’s a tidy way to go about education, but often feels a little forced. One use of the list/system that I really like is the idea of creating characters with thematic groupings, such as Gaiman’s Endless or Kirby/Lee’s Fantastic Four (roughly elemental).

Each chapter is concluded by a section of notes which are text with interspersed images from different comics. In many cases I found the notes more useful than the actual chapter, and the samples in them better examples than those found in the chapter (which are often McCloud’s own, made-up for the purposes of the example). The use of actual panels and groups of panels is much more interesting (though probably more expensive, rights-wise) than McCloud’s generic examples (and provides a handy bibliography for novice creators). The efficacy of these text notes with image examples belies the need for Making Comics to actually be a comic. So much of the book falls into what McCloud calls the “word-specific” category of text/image interaction, where the text is the real focus and the pictures just… well take up space. How many times do we need to see the comic avatar McCloud talking to us. No matter how many backgrounds or props he is given, he quickly becomes a null-space, something to skip over as one reads the text and gets to the next example of what the text is discussing. You can learn a lot about comics from reading comics, but the best place to talk about comics may not be the comic form.

In the end, disagreements and quibbles aside, McCloud offers a lot of good basic advice that is a damn sight better than what I had when I was a kid wanting to make comics, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, but it will leave you wanting more.