Crafting Comics: Getting Started OR Choosing Between Drawing Practice and Aquatic Larceny

I was nine when I attempted to make my first comic. I remember fragrant steam wafting up the stairs from my mother cooking dinner, making the entire top floor of my house sticky-humid. I remember clearly how my markers bled through the paper and ripped the fibres up into clumps of wet, dark fuzz.
I ran out of ideas after about two pages. I hated the look of the hands I’d drawn, and the pages didn’t look right, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. Something wasn’t working. I lacked some important, but unknown, capacity and so I stopped.
This was the pattern—hit the wall, get frustrated, put it aside. It is not the most efficient way to progress, and worse, my drawing teacher in the graphic design program I got into in college was one of those ‘learn by doing’ types for most thingswhich made me loco, because I am not.
I was not actually taught quite a lot of useful things. Easy things. Simple draftsmanship, and I mean simple draftsmanshiphow to easily find the centre of a rectangle even when in perspective is a simple matter of drawing diagonals from opposing corners, so that where they cross, you find the centre. Try drawing a building, window, robot, or anything in perspective without knowing this. I couldn’tmy attempt at a perspective projection in class was half erasing, half applying my brainpan to my desk. I did learn things there, between bouts of planning my escape to a life of piracy on the high seas.
I left school. I didn’t pick up a pencil again for a year. When I realized that the hideous experience wasn’t more important to me than making comics, I started drawing again, and reading. I found the information was out there in dribs and drabs, so I finally made real progress, on my own, in little steps.
I have limited advice that’s worth anythingI cannot tell you if art school is or isn’t worth your time. Some people love it and benefit hugely. Some fantasize about piracy on the high seas. I will say that fine art may not serve you as directly for comics the way graphic art/design might, because they have a different focus.
I can tell you that you can start drawing whenever you want. I know people who started up after decades not drawing. You learned to walk and talk, you can learn this. I have tutored an eleven year old boy and a forty year old man. It doesn’t matter.
I can tell you that anybody (mainly well-meaning teachers and peers) who told you in grammar school to stop drawing because you weren’t good enough were wrong (and silly). It’s fine if you pursued other things and aptitudes, but they were wrong. You can start again. You can learn any time.
Because the truth is, most people are average. Some people are that in that rare, fingernail fraction of the pie that is genius, but most aren’t. So what? It’s always been that way. You get better by working at it, like every other skill, just as you’ve always done since walking and talking.
So, if you’re starting out and don’t know where to start at all, I present a list of books and resources I’ve found helpful, and why. These are all texts I have used personally. You can get them from your local library or buy them yourself. I have organized them by category, and the first is on figure drawing.
You cannot make comics about people without understanding how they work. When an artist does not understand anatomy, it shows. You can reference for complex poses or details, but if you don’t understand anatomy, proportion and body language, your figures will look weird and unnatural. They will not convey the emotion you need to get your point across.
This does not mean your figures need to be photorealistic. On the contrary, I find very few people can pull off dynamic action with a photorealistic approachtoo much detail, no matter how exquisitely rendered, can suck a lot of energy out of the action.
From my own experience, there are particular areas to pay attention to, and I am generally of the opinion that it is better to learn real anatomy and then simplify and adapt a style out of it. Get a good foundation firstjust like with writing, if you study it (and I have), profs like to get you started with a literary foundation first. You can always go bouncing off into genre style later. Trying to learn to draw from comics alone could hinder youcreating an extreme, exaggerated funhouse mirror effect. Just look at the 90s. Ye gods.
So my recommendations will mostly fall along traditional lines, with a few important cautions:
Anatomy books are full of naked people, and people who look to have been flayed or taken apartskulls with eyeballs and brow muscles, backs laid open with the muscles depicted, skeletons in poses, that sort of thing. Just a caution to the squeamisha friend of mine still learning to draw finds my books unbearably creepy.
Most how-to books tend to assume everybody’s white, and usually, a specific 6’4’ northern European white dude. Eyelids depicted will not include epicanthic folds, which neatly excludes people from Asia, Inuit and First Nations people, some Africans, many South Pacific peoples, and some Europeans. Proclamations about cheekbone width, nose width, nostril shape and facial slope should be taken with a grain of salt. When depicting distinct ethnic groups, find your reference and sweat the small stuff, just like in portraiture.
Most how-to books tend to present hypermasculine and hyperfeminine models. How-to draw comics books are especially bad for thissee above, don’t learn to draw from comics. Men and women’s skulls and skeletons don’t actually reliably conform to the models these books would have you believeask an archaeologist or pathologist about determining gender from a skull. Then offer them sympathy. How-to books with a focus on comics also tend not to show you how to depict kids of various ages, and many artists struggle with them (the Choi/Oback team did well in X-23: Target X, however).
Do not expect most books to show you useful things like how to depict fat, injury, disease, or other physiological conditions. They do not generally depict sex organs either, if necessary to your work, and many do not show internal organs. You just have to do your own research. Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Echo) knows a thing or two about body types.
None of these are insurmountable (except the creepy factor) once you understand the basics, but be aware of these issues.
The best books I’ve got fall on a continuum of how-to technique and reference.
The best written material I have yet found on drawing technique would be the legendary series by Andrew Loomis. All of them are good, good luck finding themfor some reason, the publishers in their wisdom have allowed them to go out of print. I found a used, stained, fairly stinky copy of Andrew Loomis’ Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth for $100. It is my smelly baby and I love it. Some little softcovers are out there, however, and I strongly recommend Drawing the Head and Figures In Action.
Loomis’ books are brilliant, plain English (though dated), with concrete advice and many very good diagrams and examples which you can find via Google Image Search. I’m not suggesting or nothin’, but e-books are out there. Update your antivirus and anti-spyware.
Multiple texts offer the benefit of perspective. Maybe you don’t agree with Loomis. Maybe you want more focus on bones, or photographs. Other useful texts:
Dynamic Figure Drawing and Dynamic Anatomy by Burne Hogarth is better for heroic anatomy and figure practice, lots of examples, big illustrations. Leans a bit heavier on art jargon than others, and can be intimidating because of this. His figures often look somewhat elongated.
Anatomy for the Artist by Sarah Simblett has a lot of big, high quality pictures. Features a brief look at sex organs (unusual!), a section on drawing the skeleton in perspective, vellum overlays of skeleton over photo, and the nice feature of anatomy in masterworks. Glossary of anatomical jargon. Unique in my searching for models who are people of colour. Overall: swank.
Anatomy: A Complete Guide for Artists by Joseph Sheppard — Bones and muscles, bones and muscles, bones and muscles! Other things, of course, but this book is so good with bones that I loaned my copy to my sister so she could study for her archaeology exam. No foolin’ (and she passed). If you want to draw a skeleton army, this one is very good. Lots of drawn examples. A reference.
An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists by Fritz Schider — a reference text, what sets this one apart is the sheer breadth of examples, which is basically all it is. Photographs, details of sculpture, engravings, studies from Da Vinci, and Muybridge’s motion studies to name a few. Notable for the inclusion of children’s development as well. Light on text, but technical (with wee tiny print).
Drawing the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm — Dense with detail does not describe. Wall to wall illustrations. Simple, not too jargony, fairly inexpensive. Broad, like Loomis, but with little text. An overall good book to start with and to refer to.
Go forth to your local library or book store and check these and other titles out to find the best for your needs. A used book store may ferret out some Loomis texts for you, but be prepared to be disappointed, unfortunately, as they are sought after and rare.
My next entry will be on drawing the head, and adapting anatomy rules put forth in these books to particular situations.