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Review of Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

By Tof Eklund
Abel, Jessica, and Matt Madden. Drawing Words & Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond. New York: First Second, 2008.

Abel and Madden’s book is a landmark, not because it is revolutionary, but because it is cumulative in a way that makes it something unprecedented. It is not a study of comics, but a textbook on creating comics. Books on drawing comics are certainly nothing new, but most teach a style, be it the (in-)famous How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, any one of the horde of english language books on drawing manga, or old, Seth-esque guides to New Yorker style, like like Richard Taylor’s 1947 Introduction to Cartooning. Scott McCloud’s recent Making Comics (2006) aims at being all-purpose and like all of his work on comics, is in comics form, but it is too personal and ideosyncratic to be universal.

Abel and Madden’s book is as close to a universal guide to cartooning as is practicable: it deals in a functional degree of detail with nearly every genre of comics: classic newspaper strips, single-panel cartoons, superhero comics, manga, indie and underground comics and even minicomics, without getting swamped in how to duplicate anyone’s style. But its most remarkable trait is that it is a textbook, designed primarily for classroom use at the collegiate level. There are sections tailored to the needs of solitary readers, whom the book refers to charmingly as “Ronin,” and small self-study groups, who are referred to as “Nomads,” which theory geeks like this reader will recognize as a (appropriate but probably unintentional) reference to A Thousand Plateaus. The only readership that doesn’t get a cool handle are the “Classroom students,” but that is because they are the assumed audience, unlike in any book on creating comics to date. The book is divided into fifteen sections: one a week for a standard semester. Drawing Words and Writing Pictures even has that most contemporary of textbook supplements: a tie-in website, with course resources like syllabi and homework assignments.

The classroom focus isn’t surprising when one considers that Abel and Madden both teach at New York’s School of Visual Arts. But they’re not alone – serious scholarly study of how to make comics is on the rise, perhaps due in part to the newfound credibility of “serious” comics, and perhaps due in part to the commercial viability of comics that can be packaged and sold in the “graphic novel” and manga sections of chain bookstores. Many indie and alternative comics creators are finding themselves inside the academy, at least temporarily, and in June of last year, the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont received accreditation as a MFA granting institution.

Describing Drawing Words &Writing Pictures as a textbook is both accurate and misleading, as, while each chapter is intended to represent a week of study, and there are “Activities”, “Homework,” and “Extra Credit” sections for every week, the emphasis throughout is on individual accomplishment rather than gradeable outcomes. I’d hate to see a comic-strip grading rubric, but a novice instructor will find no help in comparing caricatures in the book or on the website. Neither is there any attempt at “textbook” style: the prose is warm and accessible, with minimal footnoting and an authorial voice that occasionally threatens to undermine the book’s near-universality. Everything taught is contextualized, but anyone expecting a history of the techniques taught or of comics will be disappointed. What Drawing Words &Writing Pictures does do is give the reader glimpses of the work of a great many artistically important cartoonists: enough to spur further interest.

The last section of the book is the most specifically outcome-oriented, and thus the most uncomfortable in terms of grading. Two options are given for “finals” – a 24-hour or a (exam-length) 3-hour comic, though they are framed as “Activities” like those previous in the book, which avoids the issue of how terrible a pressure cooker it would be to have to complete a 3-hour comic, in a controlled environment, as a final exam. The option to finish the course by having students create a mini-comic out of their various projects for the class seems more humane, and has the added appeal of being a “portfolio” project that can be distributed to the entire class.

Throughout, Abel and Madden assume that the reader wants to create comics, and they phrase everything in terms of being inherently worthwhile rather than using the language of domination that so often crops up in textbooks and classrooms. This is probably necessary for a textbook that also hopes to reach a large casual audience, but it is also something that instructors and textbook authors in every field and at every level of education could benefit from. There is no mention of Paulo Freire, but his influence can be felt, and Drawing Words &Writing Pictures is as good an implementation of his philosophy of education as I have seen in any textbook.

From a student’s perspective, Drawing Words &Writing Pictures is not without its faults. While it takes on comics from many angles, anyone interested in color will be disappointed: that topic is deferred, possibly to a second volume. Anyone expecting instruction in perspective or anatomy more detailed than an artist’s mannequin will likewise be disappointed, and while the book is friendly to those without artistic training, it may leave them with the feeling that they should be able to perform techniques that are either glossed or unexplained in the text. Abel and Madden partially remedy this by giving appropriate “Further Reading” in each chapter, rather than in a daunting Bibliography. These problems are inherent in the project of putting together a university-level textbook that teaches how to make a variety of comics and does so in one semester and without prerequisites. Programs like the aforementioned MFA in Cartoon Studies (creating comics) do this over several years of exclusive study as their primary goal. As the only logical alternate is to presume that students (and casual readers) have already completed introductory courses in line and figure drawing, plus some formal study of art and literature and probably even a course on stage or screenwriting, Abel and Madden cannot be faulted for choosing the lesser of two evils.

My other complaints are probably inapplicable to the book’s intended audience, as they are matters of the theoretical study of comics rather than the practice of creating comics. Nonetheless, Chapter 9, “Structuring Story” made me cringe. Although they acknowledge other possibilities, Madden and Abel push students toward a simple version of the “classic” teleological arc of rising action, climax and dénouement. The arguments made in favor of this would be embarrassing in any literature classroom, and there is no attempt to nuance this structure, let alone deal with the concerns about narrative that are unavoidable in modernist, let alone “postmodern” writing and art. For further reading, we are directed to Aristotle’s Poetics, a few books on screenwriting, and Dennis O’Neal’s The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Any student of literature or critical theory will be left catching flies by this list. It is true that the literary world has long snubbed comics, but that doesn’t mean that comics should return the favor.

Similarly, scholarship about comics is completely ignored except for McCloud’s theory of panel transitions, which is the principle topic of Chapter 4 “Bridging the Gap.” As a result, comics are often compared, problematically, to film. Chapter 11 “Setting the Stage” has a clear and concise guide to film terminology, and naturalizes them in a way that treats the artist as a photographer. Though both McCloud’s model and the language of film are valid lenses to approach comics through, both are theoretical perspectives that focus attention on particular issues, and in so doing, elide others. For example, both of these models impose a purely linear notion of comics narrative (panel-to-panel). It is probably unreasonable to expect a book on creating comics to “teach the conflicts” (to use Gerald Graff’s term), but an instructor using Drawing Words &Writing Pictures might want to prepare to supplement the book with texts on semiotics, art criticicism, narratology, etc. as well as specific approaches to comics such as arthrology, visual linguistics, and vector analysis.

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