When I was a kid, my fondest dream was to own an art supply store
when I grew up. I think there was something about having complete access to the means for making art that attracted me. That, and I really love markers.
Now I’m arguably grown up, and I work, in my capacity as an editor
at First Second, with some of the greatest talents known to comics. (In
a way, I’ve achieved my childhood dream — I devote myself to making
things happen so art can happen. And I have a lot of really nice markers!)
Anyway, some of the creators I work with are grizzled industry vets, and
some of them are fresh out of school and finding their footing.
But they all know how to make comics. And as for our authors who are
writing in this medium for the first time, we might have a thing or two to teach them about comics, but they still know storytelling — they know about creating.
What this means, I guess, is that I probably won’t ever have a
chance to enact this fantasy I have of taking a talented artist with no
resources or training — a blank slate personified — and equipping her or him with precisely the right tools to make a truly great comic
book. And that’s probably a good thing! (I mean, this is kind of a
weird fantasy, right? Please, let’s not analyze it.)
But I can still think about this scenario. Here’s how it might go…
"Here, talented young thing," I’d say, kindly in my grand way,
waving a languorous and perfectly manicured hand, "here is a box of
granola bars, a gift certificate to Utrecht, and two books for you to
read very, very carefully. Now go forth and make the next Krazy Kat."
So, guess what? Those two books I want to give the
victims beneficiaries of my largess? They both came out in the last two months. What is it about our time, about this moment, that these invaluable tools are coming to light right now? That’s a topic for another post, I suppose. In any case, I’m absolutely convinced that anyone — anyone! — who reads Lynda Barry’s What It Is and Jessica Abel & Matt Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures will come away with the tools and inspiration to make a comic worth reading. And that’s certainly saying something.
In certain respects, DW&WP and What It Is are very different. DW&WP is a wonderfully thorough formal curriculum, and provides a staggering array of technical tools for making comics, from tips about wrangling xerox machines to the basic principles of story structure; from a chart graphing the qualities of different nibs to a solid lesson in constructing an original character.
And then, over on the absolute other end of the spectrum of instructional works by revered cartoonists is Barry’s fantastic, baffling, illuminating treatise on the creative process, where graceful and sinister collage pages somehow reach into your lizard brain and convince you that you can make things. It’s an approach that sidesteps the critical brain altogether. Which is not to say that Barry doesn’t offer any practical tips — she does, and they are as useful and sensible as the tips in DW&WP, if nowhere near as wide-ranging or technical.
There is a more profound similarity between these two works, and it has to do with a certain spirit of intent, a democratizing of the creative process. Again and again, Abel and Madden remind us that we don’t have to "know how to draw" to make good comics — they spoke about this in their spot on NPR, which you can listen to here! — and the curriculum they construct is one that relies very little on other formal training a reader might or might not have. Barry’s focus is on actively eliminating the "Is this good?" part of the process and accessing a headspace that is generative and nonjudgemental. What you make, how good it is, is almost beside the point — it’s the making that counts, according to Barry.
It’s an unbeatable combination. Together, these two books arm the reader with a perfect alchemy of know-how and zen-like clear-headed confidence, and, above all, a renewed enthusiasm for creating. They’ve got me looking at my markers in a whole new light.