In 1993, cartoonist Scott McCloud (Zot!) released a landmark tome for those of us who take funnybooks seriously: Understanding Comics, one of those gems passed around from friend to friend, spelled out theoretical underpinnings (in simple, friendly terms) for the way the medium works.
Now he’s back with a third installment, Making Comics (Harper), which turns his theories and manifestos into practical advice for aspiring cartoonists. Where most how-tos focus on showing kids how Superman’s muscles are supposed to bulge, McCloud wants to explain how one panel leads into another, how images are composed and action edited, how to choose the tools that best fit your storytelling needs. It’s encouraging enough to make even an all-thumbs reader think he could do it — but even if you’re never motivated to pick up a pen, you’ll walk away with a new appreciation for this deceptively simple-looking art form. (McCloud will pass through Texas early next year on his months-long book tour.)
The new In the Studio (Yale) sounds like it might complement Making Comics: “Visits with contemporary cartoonists” suggests that we’ll be seeing drawing boards and hearing about work habits. Readers (like me) hoping for that will be thwarted — there’s nary a studio photo in the book — only to find that author Todd Hignite more than makes up for the disappointment. Hignite visits the homes of alt-comics stars (Crumb, Panter, Clowes, et cetera), and discusses items of particular significance to them — from Art Spiegelman’s collection of original art by Winsor McCay and Harvey Kurtzman to the Alvin Lustig-designed book jackets that inspire Dan Clowes. The interviews veer from artistic autobiography to straight idol-worship, often providing unexpected insights into how each artist’s style has evolved and where certain ideas came from.
Yale’s other offering this season focuses on the end result of all that inspiration. An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories was curated by Schizo creator Ivan Brunetti, and provides maybe the best single-volume selection I’ve seen of the artists who make contemporary comics worth getting excited about. Rather than commissioning new work from folks who are already too busy, Brunetti scours their most identifiable work as if compiling the text for a college survey. Come to think of it, I’d wager that this book will be on dozens of syllabi next Fall.
In a similar vein but with a limited time frame is The Best American Comics 2006 (Houghton Mifflin). Edited with characteristic Joe Schmo-ness by Harvey Pekar (“ ... now listen, I’m not claiming these are the absolute best comics issued in a given twelve-month period ...”), this fresh collection — whose table of contents does not content itself with the usual suspects — marks the first time that Houghton’s Best American series (beloved for its essay and short-story collections) has devoted a whole title to comics. Last year, comics were relegated to the unpredictable Best American Nonrequired Reading collection; this year, only a couple of cartoonists pop up in that category, leaving more room for excerpts from The Onion, The Daily Show, and This American Life. Funny — I always thought The Daily Show was mandatory ...
Finally, this column wants to send out heartfelt “get well soon” wishes to Eightball genius Dan Clowes, who underwent open-heart surgery in October. The operation was successful, according to his publisher, Fantagraphics, but will require a long recovery. Here’s hoping the soreness in his chest doesn’t keep him from picking up a pen from time to time.