August: Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics by Stan Lee

Stan Lee’s writings on comics–and indeed, his early comics–have the kind of enthusiasm about making comics that I did when I was nine and first decided to learn how to do it. Since then, my enthusiasm has been tempered by the frustration and effort involved trying to understand the production and theory in greater depth.

Books like this are a shot in the arm!

It starts with a little history of the field–as one might expect, Stan’s own experience is recalled in more detail. I’m not weeping over the brevity of the section on the Nineties, though.

Chapters two, three and four talk about drawing, specifically materials and anatomy. Really, this is too large a part of the process to rely on this book alone unless the art part is not going to be on your plate–but, fortunately, there’s a list of recommended reading included, and I can vouch for the ten of the fourteen on the list that I own. Books, I haz them.

Chapter five and six have some of the great rarer stuff. Five talks about design choices, as they apply to character acting and panel action; six gets into character naming and costumes. Anecdotes!

Chapter seven is dear to my heart. Environments, or backgrounds as they are often dismissively called, are discussed, yes, but there’s more! The book discusses how to use Google’s SketchUp to help with perspective for objects like houses–and in some detail. So, for you who are desperately terrified of complex perspective, this one’s for you. (I don’t blame you.)

Chapter eight is worth the price of the book alone.

Why? Because it deals with one of the most difficult and technical parts of comics–and the part of the mix that makes comics what they are.

Layouts, people! Stan discusses eye path, cinematic continuity, camera angles, clarity… and then there’s the true chewy gold centre for aspiring comic makers.

Mistakes. Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. Jezreel Morales produces a four-page layout of an action scene with specific problems, which Stan then discusses–not only what’s gone awry, but why. It includes my pet peeve, rampant abuse of panel break-out!

Another useful element is a sample 3-age breakdown/layout by Wilson Tortosa, which is designed to be worked up to completion or expanded upon in new ways by a developing artist. How cool is that?

Developing artists may enjoy chapter nine especially. It discusses pencilling styles, and showcases some very different, but quite effective, pencillers and discusses the development of style over time–Al Rio starting out as a clone of J. Scott Campbell? Having only become familiar with Rio fairly recently, it’s heartening to see how much a style can grow. But then, I can barely picture the stark differences between early Deodato and modern Deodato, and I own a good chunk of his Wonder Woman run. Does not compute!

Speaking of Deodato, there’s some process pages where the book demonstrates how to use photoreference properly–that is, as to support your carefully-considered layout design, not as a replacement for purveyors of pornface. Derivative pornface at that.

Chapters ten, eleven, and twelve deal with inking, lettering, and colouring, and covers are discussed in good detail. The final chapter is concerned with portfolios and getting work in the industry. The indexes include, as mentioned, the reading list, some schools offering courses in comics (all American), and even places to find art supplies.

As a primer on the many and varied aspects of production, I haven’t found a better one. Some of the content is similar to How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, but unlike that book, this has quite a breadth of artists in it and has a broader focus.

It’s not without problems–there’s a section on representing ethnicities that’s not really worth listening to. This is a standard, pervasive problem with almost every drawing book I ever encountered–everybody’s got that European body and face. Blah. Hunt ye down Joumana Medlej’s resources for ethnotypes instead. Also, there’s some of the usual stuff about female characters needing to remain sensual without heavy emphasis on muscle… of course, the last full illustration in the book is Frank Cho’s physically powerful Red Sonja with a big axe on her shoulder, so take that as you will. There’s a few issues like that, but nothing that makes me want to kill-kill-never-stop.

It’s a big field, and Stan’s experience is put to good use discussing not just the practises but also the reasoning behind them. And call me a keener, but I’d rather have a slab of a book that gives a more complete picture than a dozen skinny ones–and this book isn’t even a slab. For real facility, you will need to supplement this book with others in the field in question. But the reading list has some excellent material, and I do encourage checking out some of the titles listed.

Seriously, this is at the top of my list on technical grounds alone, but it’s also served by Stan himself–you know he loves comics, and that comes through. That kind of spirit is a tonic for me when I’m banging my head against the latest production problem, and makes me remember why I love comics in the first place.

Violence: Present, and varies–because it’s not a narrative, the art jumps all over the place in style and content.

Sexualized Violence: None.

Gender: Inherent problem of anatomy discussion–plus the usual silliness about drawing women. Not egregious.

The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Not really applicable.

Minorities: Just ignore everything on pages 70-71 that discuss ethnicity in particular and looking for Joumana Medlej’s series on ethnotypes.

Parents May Wish to Be Aware: There’s comic book violence and more than a little cleavage.

Review by Winterbourne.

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