October 19, 2006

Making Comics

by Scott McCloud

A gloss on McCloud's essential and insightful Understanding Comics , this book addresses novices who want to make comics. Naive manuals appear regularly, teaching people how to imitate various comic drawing styles; McCloud seeks to go deeper and to explore in somewhat greater depth the craft of telling stories in words and sequential art.

Some of his points are new and important. In a single frame, for example, he sums up beautifully why simple immersive media wouldn't accomplish everything we want, if only we all had holodecks at our disposal. In it, he draws Kelly Donovan with a word balloon in which he introduces himself as the actor who played Xander Harris's evil twin in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. You can't say this in images: it's inherently symbolic. (I've argued this in talks for years, with reference to Euclidean geometry, organic chemistry, and macroeconomics. McCloud's example is much better.)

McCloud's subject is visual storytelling, not the mechanics of drawing cute manga babes or men in tights. His discussion of facial expression is brilliant and, I think, unmatched. (Jane Espenson, who has a new blog, agrees.)

What I miss here is a fuller treatment of story construction. What do you show, and what can you leave unshown? Mamet has a terrific lesson in On Directing Film , walking a class of film students through the process of finding the shortest and most direct way to convey "arriving early for an important meeting" to the audience. There's much to explore: where do you place the viewer? Where do you place the characters? What must you show, and what can be omitted? How, for example, do you indicate that we are arriving early? You could have a shot of a clock. You could have someone tell us that it's early. But there are better answers.

I'm confident that there are interesting matters of craft that McCloud omits, perhaps because they seem too technical or too theoretical or simply too detailed for the notional novice reader. I miss the details. Playwrights, for example, learn that they need to either give a character something to do or get them offstage, because it's remarkably difficult to do nothing and say nothing convincingly for more than a minute or two.

Shaw didn't get this memo and sometimes leaves actors hung out to dry for ten or twenty minutes at a stretch while others discourse on labor relations and the obligations of management. This is hard to see in a good stage production and almost impossible to see on the printed page, unless you know to look. A good stage production will have anticipated the challenge and taken it into account in casting and rehearsal, and on the page you don't see the characters who have no lines.

McCloud does offer some fascinating insights on the effect of different compositional choices, and especially on the more subtle differences between US, European, and Japanese styles and how these elements might be blended to good effect. I'd like to see much more.