Saturday, September 09, 2006

Preliminary Notes on Scott McCloud's Making Comics

1.

This is not a review. It is not a systematic attempt to analyze or evaluate the book under discussion, Scott McCloud's just-out graphic novel* Making Comics, his third nonfiction book** and the third in what one might inelegantly call his "--ing comics series" which also included Understanding Comics (1993) and Reinventing Comics (2000). It is, rather, some notes on it. Also, I'm not being coy in labeling them" preliminary": I've just begun absorbing McCloud's extraordinary new book, and I might well change my mind on any or all of this after I've reread it, thought it through more, and so forth. (Hell, the promised chapter five-and-a-half -- a web-only chapter that is referred to several times in Making Comics -- isn't even up yet. (ETA eleven days from now, according to his web site.))

I am assuming that if you want to make comics, or even do already make comics, you either have already read or have already arranged to read (e.g. ordered a copy, reserved it at the library) a copy of McCloud's book. He is simply too important, too central to thinking about comics for anyone serious about the medium not to read it. So yes, if you have any interest in making comics you should read this book. Period.

What is less clear is that if anyone who is not interested in making comics should read it. Understanding Comics, of course, seduced many people who were otherwise uninterested in comics into appreciating the medium, but it also proved relevant and interesting to the work of others such as graphic designers and web designers. It's much less clear whether Making Comics has anything to say to either those who are interested in storytelling in another medium (prose, film, what have you) or those who read comics but aren't interested in making them.

Therefore these notes will address three separate audiences: those who have read the book, for whom they will serve as part of the opening volley in what will, doubtless, be a long and fruitful discussion of the book (including its merits and flaws, but largely about its points); those who are intending to read the book, but haven't got around to it yet, who might be curious about what they will find when they do read it; and those who aren't interested in making comics who are curious about whether or not they should read it.

2.

Making Comics is about a very specific set of things -- how to translate a story that is already in your head to the medium of comics. It is about page layout, word choice, image choice, and that sort of thing. In the promotional material, McCloud says that "If you’ve ever felt there must be something more to making comics than just copying drawing styles then this is the book for you." This is meant to distinguish the book from the many 'how to draw' books, in particular the 'how to draw in such-and-such a style' books, which make up the vast majority of how-to books about making comics.

But he doesn't talk about a lot of the elements that one might talk about apart from how to draw -- he doesn't talk, for example, about how to structure a lengthy story. His book is focused on how to tell stories using comics -- and it largely avoids broader materials on how to tell stories. (We'll return to this point.)

Also, interestingly -- given its own format! -- it is very much about how to tell stories using comics. Now, a great deal of what he says would be relevant to anyone who wants to make nonfiction comics in the same mode as Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics or Making Comics -- obviously, how to combine pictures and words, what techniques and materials to use, etc, are all equally relevant. But some material -- e.g. character creation -- is less so. And, interestingly, McCloud frequently writes as if "making comics" was synonymous with "creating fictional comics stories" -- despite the fact that his own work is evidence to the contrary. It's not enough to keep someone who is interested only in making nonfiction comics from buying the book, but it is slightly odd.

A parallel might be seen in McCloud's discourse about art. As was also true of Understanding Comics to some extent, McCloud is careful to define comics in such a way as to exclude no artistic method -- and then goes on to write as if his readers are all using line-based artwork. Now this is probably fair given that most people who make comics do use line-based artwork. But some of his discussions of line, for example, will mean little to anyone who paints their comics. And as someone who is currently working on a photographic comic, a great deal of the lengthy section about facial expressions did little other than to remind me how crucial getting good actors is. (There was no reference to "photography" in the index, only to "photographic reference", i.e. using photographs as the basis for drawings.) But, again, this will serve most of McCloud's audience well; and the material is quite fascinating even when it isn't directly relevant (and some of it is more relevant than it might seem at first glance -- the material on expression has some interesting things to say about the uses of expression even to those who won't be directly drawing them). Still it's interesting that he doesn't always seem to remember his own insistence that comics can use any materials.

3.

No one should read Making Comics who hasn't read Understanding Comics. This is true for several reasons. The most basic is that the audience for Making Comics is a proper subset of the audience for Understanding Comics: anyone who is interested in the former will be interested in the latter, but the reverse is not necessarily true. If you are interested in comics at all you should, of course, read Understanding Comics; and a great many people who don't think they are interested in Understanding Comics like it enormously too, whether or not this leads to an interest in comics. (Among other things, if you are interested in aesthetics, or the nature of different artistic media (particularly narrative media such as prose or film), or graphic design, or anything like that, you'll get a lot out of Understanding Comics.) Basically, if you haven't read Understanding Comics, you should go do that now and then come back and talk about whether or not you should read Making Comics.

But this is true for another reason as well: Making Comics is very heavily based on Understanding Comics. He regularly builds on concepts and ideas first developed in Understanding Comics. While he describes these concepts and ideas briefly, he does so nowhere near enough to make up for not having read Understanding Comics. Understanding Comics is a prerequisite for this book.

He does, however, describe them enough so that someone who hasn't read Understanding Comics as recently, repeatedly or obsessively as, say, I have will be sufficiently reminded of them to keep going. I was tempted to say that he says a bit too much about them, given that people obviously need to have read Understanding Comics to read this book -- but I'm not at all certain that's true: since he is actively using the concepts & ideas, he does need to be sure they're fresh in people's minds. (In Reinventing Comics, he could and did get away with a brief, opening review -- but Reinventing Comics was much less dependent on Understanding Comics than Making Comics is.) So I think what he does is probably just right -- reminds people of what they need to know. Since, again, Understanding Comics is a prerequisite for Making Comics.

This is not true of Reinventing Comics, though. There are sections of Making Comics which refer to Reinventing Comics, but far fewer, and (based on a single reading) less essentially. Now, I'm a very big fan of Reinventing Comics -- I enjoyed it tremendously, and thought that it was generally quite underrated -- but you can read Making Comics without having read Reinventing Comics, and some people might want to.

Making Comics Cover

4.

One complaint I would make about Making Comics is that it's a relatively unattractive book in its packaging -- layout, back cover, and the like. I don't mean the contents -- I like McCloud's art a lot, personally (and you should know whether or not you like it or not from Understanding Comics) -- but everything else. The front cover is nice: but the back cover struck me as a bit jumbled, and the inclusion of McCloud's by-now familiar icon on the spine of the book looked cheesy to me. The binding is a bit tight, so one has to choose between letting the edges of the images get lost in the crack between the pages and breaking the spine.

Far more seriously, I think that the decision to put the notes to any given chapter directly after it, rather than gathering them all together in the back, was a serious mistake: it makes the entire package much less attractive. It might be worth it if it made the notes easier to find or more accessible -- but I don't think there's much difference between keeping a finger in the text and flipping to the back of the chapter and keeping a finger in the text and flipping to the back of the book; if anything, it's harder to find the notes at the end of the chapter. Unlike actual bottom-of-the-page footnotes (which I'm not recommending, they would have been a bad idea), end-of-the-chapter footnotes have no particular benefit. And the break up the feel of the text as a comic in a way I disliked. Gary Groth, co-founder of comics publisher Fantagraphics, criticized Reinventing Comics (inaccurately and unfairly, in my opinion) as simply a non-fiction essay with pictures added to inflate it took a book***. No one is likely to say that of Making Comics, since it so thoroughly uses and depends upon its status as comics; but the notes do break up the flow. They should have been left at the back of the book.

In fairness, I got McCloud's book the day after I received Moore and Gebbie's Lost Girls which -- whatever else you can say about it (and there's a lot to say, my own version of which I may or may not write up at some point) -- is an extraordinarily beautiful physical object, a gorgeous set of books, beautifully laid out on very nice paper, etc., so that perhaps my standards in this area were momentarily inflated.

5.

Making Comics is filled with humor and wit and insight that isn't directly related to its topic. It is one of the joy of McCloud's nonfiction that this is true, and it's certainly true no less in Making Comics than in his earlier books -- perhaps even more. The little "throwaway" stories and characters that he uses as examples are frequently delightful. I don't know if they're enough to keep a reader who isn't interested in actually making comics going, but they add an enormous amount to the book. McCloud's books always have generous helpings of analytic insight, but they wouldn't be half as good as they are without his extraordinary wit and charm.

These incidental stories also belie, to my mind, a powerful sub-theme of the book, namely McCloud's own doubts about his own storytelling ability. He begins by saying**** that "my own comics stories are never as good as I know they could be" (p. 2), and he consistently presents himself as among the audience for his own book. Now, to some degree, this may simply be a pedagogical move: it's a disarming tactic to present yourself not as the master lecturing the hoi polloi but as a fellow-seeker, and on that level it works quite well.

But I suspect -- given not only its tone in this book, but supporting evidence from (e.g.) remarks on his web site -- that it's not just a pedagogical pose (however well it works as one), but a genuine concern. To which I have two responses.

First, I think that to a fair degree it's unwarranted. Sure, he's not (say) Alison Bechdel or Alan Moore in relation to his creation of character or story. But he is quite good. I invite readers to judge on their own by reading his online Zot! story (a sequel to his 36-issue 1980's series, but perfectly comprehensible on its own) and the two parts (out of a projected three) of his online story "The Right Number". He may not be one of the all-time masters, but he's a very good storyteller. Even lesser works like "My Obsession with Chess" and some episodes of "The Morning Improv" show an enormous amount of talent. So while I appreciate his ambition to do still-greater things -- and I look forward to them -- I think he's being a bit more self-depreciating here than is warranted.

But -- and this is the second point -- to the degree that it is warranted, nothing in Making Comics will help him.

Making Comics is all about using the comics medium to tell stories. It's not about how to tell good stories -- which is a slightly different matter. In fact, McCloud says as much on page 150:
So far, I've barely touched on what makes a "good story" -- partly because I'm still trying to figure that one out for myself. This book is about how to tell the stories you already have in mind, regardless of where those stories come from. (Translation from comics lettering into prose-style typography mine.)
-- then follows a page of extremely commonplace advice on how to tell a good story before McCloud pivots to the topic of not selling out, about which he has more to say.

I submit that the topics in Making Comics are precisely what McCloud already knows how to do and does extraordinarily well. Of course this only makes sense: he can hardly write about what he hasn't learned how to do yet -- a point that would be so obvious as to be not worth mentioning except that he claims that that is what he is doing. But he's not: he's giving guidance about how to tell a story using comics -- not how to tell a story. And I submit that to the degree that his earlier fiction is lacking (which, again, is less than McCloud himself thinks), it's lacking not in its use of the medium, but in basic storytelling principles that you won't learn from Making Comics.

Which also gets to the issue of whether or not someone who is not interested in making comics should read this book. This book is truthfully labeled: it is about making comics -- not about telling stories, or reading comics, or anything else. Now, some of the things he says are more broadly applicable -- for instance, I suspect that filmmakers could learn a lot from some of his discussions about visual storytelling. And reading about how comics are made has obvious insights for those who are simply reading rather than making comics. To say nothing of the fact that, in asides, tangents and the like McCloud says interesting things about (for example) Manga and their relationship to western comics. But none of this is the focus of the book. If you read the book for anything than a book about how to make comics, you'll be reading it at a tangent to not only its stated purpose, but to its central effort.

This, too, would hardly be worth mentioning -- since, after all, the book is truthfully labeled -- except that some people might be fooled by progression. Both Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics were books about reading comics; this book is in every way (its title, the visuals, etc.) clearly the third in that series. But it is for a subset of the previous book's audience. People who pick it up should bear that in mind: it is what it says, not what the previous books might lead you to believe it is.

If you know that going in, you might well decide to read it anyway -- since it does have applicability to other things, unrelated insight and wit, and all of that. But know that you'll be doing the equivalent of buying Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for the art: possibly a reasonable thing to do, but not the central focus of the project.

6.

To return for a moment to McCloud's artistic ambitions: I wonder, from time to time, if McCloud is not in some way making the mistake of Arthur Sullivan. Sir Arthur Sullivan -- that's "Sullivan" as in "Gilbert and Sullivan" -- wanted to be a Serious Composer of Great Operas, and was frustrated that his light, comic operettas (with lyrics by W. S. Gilbert) got all the attention. But his genius was for light, comic music. Few today listen to Sullivan's serious compositions; his light operettas have been enjoyed for more than a century. Perhaps he should have stuck to what his genius was. Much the same tale could be told of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: he wanted to be a Great Novelist; what he was was the inventor of Sherlock Holmes. (Moral: if you're a knight named Arthur, aim lower.)

McCloud wants to tell stories; his next project is a long graphic novel. I wonder, however, if his genius isn't really for non-fictional comics. If I were McCloud's agent -- but no, that's wrong: it's not only that that's what sells, it's what is valuable, what lasts. If I were advising McCloud, I might suggest he work on a fourth non-fiction graphic novel -- ideally about comics, but maybe about computers, or really anything else that strikes his fancy.

But there's another level to this. I wonder -- and I don't know, I have no idea what he's doing for his next graphic novel -- if McCloud wishes to do serious work. I get that sense, for example, from "The Right Number" -- it is an attempt to do a Serious comic. But this may be a mistake. In addition to non-fiction and analysis, McCloud is quite gifted at light, witty comedy. Indeed, he is able to take light, witty comedy and make it profound. So if he does want to work on fiction, I would advise him to not to try to be serious. Work on something light and funny, and you might well hit something serious and profound. It's how Zot! worked. And a lot of great art has been done that way. (A recent example is Buffy the Vampire Slayer: began as humorous parody, became the best show on TV, maybe ever -- and often an extremely serious one, while (almost) always staying funny, too.) It might be the way to best use his storytelling gifts.

Connected to his longing to tell better stories than he heretofore feels he has, perhaps, is the sense of his own mortality -- which is a reoccurring leitmotif in Making Comics. So far as I can tell, his cartoon depictions in Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics are identical; not so his cartoon depiction in Making Comics, which has a distinct, unmistakable mark of grey hair about the temples, and is a bit chunkier. He even makes his own age-induced weight, in opposition to his depiction in the earlier comics, the source of some of his humor (examples: page 2 panel 1 and page 4 panel 1; page 79, panel 3). At first I thought this was a mistake: as explained in Understanding Comics (pages 36 - 37), there is a good reason for the minimalism of his icon. But in fact I quickly forgot about it, so I suppose it works. But it strikes a slightly bittersweet note in the book.

7.

So McCloud's book is about making comics -- that is, how to use the tools of comics, particularly line-drawn comics, to (mostly) tell stories. How good is his advice in this area?

I'm probably not qualified to comment on this, as I am someone who has written comics scripts but has never participated in the production of a finished, actual comic. Nevertheless, my sense is that McCloud spends a lot of time making explicit things that people largely know and do instinctively. He is even a little bit defensive about this point; for instance, talking about his own advice on word/picture combinations, he says
Just to reiterate, I'm definitely not suggesting that anyone sit down and carefully choose their word/picture combinations before creating a comic. As with the 6 panel transitions in chapter one, I don't want this kind of classification to replace whatever instincts you have. Instead, by asking the kinds of questions I pose... I hope you can hone your instincts in the future to take advantage of these word-picture possibilities in a natural, intuitive way. (notes to chapter 3, p. 155)
I think this is about right. In many cases, I read what McCloud says and thought, "oh, I knew that". But it is still valuable to read, and to think about, and to discuss. And, of course, in other cases I thought, "wow, I hadn't considered that possibility --". Obviously which category any given discussion falls into will differ from artist to artist, as will the percentage in each; but I think that every creator will benefit from McCloud's book. Even if every single thing in here is stuff "you already know", McCloud's presentation is still valuable, smart, witty and interesting.

I should say, though, that I don't think his categories in Making Comics are quite as profound as those in Understanding Comics. This was, perhaps, the heart of the complaint about Reinventing Comics, and the one degree to which those complaints had merit. The categories he unveiled in Understanding Comics changed the way we think about comics, throwing not only new light but deeper light upon the subject. The categories in Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, while still extremely interesting, aren't as revolutionary as those in Understanding Comics. They don't have that quality of retrospective inevitability (or, for you Kantians out there, synthetic a priori) that the truly groundbreaking categories do -- as the analyses from Understanding Comics did. Understanding Comics made you wonder how you could ever have seen comics otherwise. The ideas in Reinventing Comics, on the other hand, were interesting additions to the conversation. It's a different level -- still a very worthy one, mind you (as I said, I am a big admirer of Reinventing Comics and think it underrated), but nevertheless a different one.

I do think, however, that the conceptions, ideas and categories in Making Comics, while not quite up to the level of those in Understanding Comics (and, let's face it, thoughts on that level are rare: to have them once in a lifetime is to do far, far better than most writers and thinkers) are richer and more interesting than those in Reinventing Comics. Rich enough, and interesting enough, that I think I want to stop talking about them until I have had a chance to think about them some more -- upon which, perhaps, I will even upgrade my evaluation of them. But even if not: they are, if not revolutionary, then unquestionably extremely interesting.

So, to end where I began: anyone who wants to make, or is making, comics should read this book. No question about that. Others should read it if, given that it is precisely what it says it is, they are still interested (and, if they do, they will be rewarded with wit and insight aplenty). Once we've all read it, then the discussion can begin.

This has not been a review.

Update: My thoughts on a lecture by Scott McCloud -- part of his 50 State tour to celebrate Making Comics -- can be read here.

Update 2: Scott McCloud's promised online supplement, "chapter five-and-a-half", is now online.

_____________

* It's a "graphic novel" even though, if it were prose, it would be nonfiction and, hence, not a novel. I say a bit more about this here if you're curious or dubious about this. Suffice to say it's the standard usage.

But since "comics" is not only McCloud's term but the more general term, including not only graphic novels but also daily cartoons, monthly comics and so forth, I will use that term throughout.

** Oddly, McCloud often talks as if his nonfiction books are his only books, referring to Understanding Comics as his first book and Reinventing Comics as his second, as if he hadn't also published three volumes of Zot! and various other narrative comics.

*** This summary is based on my memory of Groth's essay and my responses to it at the time, since they've now taken the relevant part off-line so I can't reread it and check. But that was my sense of it when I read it some years ago.

**** Any time I quote McCloud in these notes, I will "translate" his comics-style lettering (all capitals, generous use of bolds for emphasis, etc.) into a format more suited to prose (upper-and-lower case, only occasional emphasis and that with italics, etc.) So bear in mind that you are reading his words through my reformatting. McCloud has a fascinating (if inconclusive) discussion of the merits of different styles of lettering and which works best for comics on p. 156 of Making Comics.

3 comments:

Michael A. Burstein said...

Fascinating analysis. I picked up a copy of the book as soon as I could and read it. I think a lot of what you say makes sense. There are places where I might disagree, but sadly, I don't have the time to go into a full-depth analysis of my own.

I will say, though, that it is interesting to compare his book with books such as Writing Comics With Peter David or Denny O'Neil's book on writing comics, both of which focus more on story than being able to draw.

Stephen said...

Michael,

Thanks for commenting. I must admit I haven't read the David or O'Neil books, so I was thinking (as, it seems clear, McCloud was) of his book in comparison to the multitude of "how-to-draw" books. But he David/O'Neil books probably would make an interesting comparison -- I hope you do one! (My guess, based on what I know of their other work, is that David & O'Neil are both more focused on "mainstream" comics specifically, done with other artists, rather than McCloud who is trying to speak to a broader stylistic audience. But, again, that's just a guess.)

SF

cease ill said...

I am slugging it out, with the blessings of all Muses, very much attempting to craft our own finished comics. So many Skills! Glad I found this via Klock's Remarkables: an analysis of an analysis, with a peak outside the covers at the reader's world, was enjoyable, Stephen. The end result is not only that I will definitely buy a copy for myself; I now want to click on your comics scripts. (I will, too, soon as I polish this combat story.)