Making Comics, Scott McCloud

Harper, 2006, 264 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-078094-0

Though I’d like to doodle a bit better than I currently do, I really don’t ever intend to make comics. The entire field remains half a mystery for me even as a reader: though I’m always game for good graphic novels, I’m not what you’d consider a comics fan. I go in comic book shops to get what’s recommended to me. A generic book called Making Comics is definitely not a book for me.

But this is Scott McCloud’s Making Comics: the usual rules don’t apply. Over the past decade, I’ve found myself recommending his magisterial Understanding Comics to all sorts of people: it’s such a lucid book that it can ring a sensitive chord for all storytellers and a bunch of readers as well. His follow-up, Reinventing Comics, struck a bit too close to risky speculation and suffered for this overreach: It still reads very well even today, but you can feel the world moving away from it. In Making Comics, McCloud tackles comics from yet another angle: that of a creator speaking to other creators, taking the opportunity to reflect upon the craft and the state of the art. But civilians shouldn’t worry: It’s fully accessible (even compulsively readable) for all readers, regardless of doodling skills or lack thereof.

Here, McCloud offers a fascinating look into the mechanics of comics, approaching the question as a excuse to explore craft and touching upon the techniques implicit in this particular art. The book opens on a long but fascinating overview of what the artist can choose to include on his pages. Later subjects of contemplation include character design and perspective (along with their emotional impact). The short discussion of tools boils down to “whatever works for you”, though it offers a good look at McCloud’s own process. The book finishes with a good pep talk about making it in the world of comics and a discussion of styles that classifies comics artists in four distinct categories: Classicists, Animists, Formalists and Iconoclasts.

Limiting this book to “just comics” is a mistake. Comics artists may be the only ones who really understand how “making comics” requires a lot more than simply drawing abilities. Perhaps the clearest example of this is to be found in the “Facial Expressions” chapter, which details in unsettling detail the basic “palette” of human emotions and how they can be combined to make up the wide variety of expressions. (Within days of reading this section, I ended up independently discovering Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Naked Face”, which also deals with the work of Paul Ekman. Fascinating stuff, with plenty of tangential implications.) Other standout moments include a primer on decoding (and replicating) human emotions through body language: If you think that comic book artists are simply people who draw things for a living, they may have a thing or two to teach you about how to act. Everything is connected, suggests McCloud: Making good comics is also about understanding oneself, understanding others and understanding the world. Just like all art.

And that, ultimately, is why Making Comics is such a surefire hit for all creators, regardless of their chosen method of expression: Everyone who makes something meant to evoke human emotions, from prose to sculpture to comics to acting, is trying to understand, replicate and manipulate the world with their imagination. Making Comics is, like McCloud’s first two books, an exhilarating read for everyone interested in artistic expression. When it clicks, it’s as if the mysteries of the universe recede just a bit further. Now that’s my definition of a recommended book.

As for the inevitable question “Is it better or worse than McCloud’s other books?”, there are only a couple of suggestions to offer: The trilogy is a complete set and it’s useless to try to pick a winner or a loser; It’s become a rule of life itself that nothing will ever touch the brilliance of Understanding Comics; Making Comics will find its niche as a valuable resource for budding comic artists; I found myself reading Making Comics with the same intellectual pleasure than the two other volumes; I also caught myself re-reading whole chunks of it while writing this review; I recommend the full set, but would start off new readers on the first volume.

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