Nearly 3 months ago, I'd picked up a book from the library called The Education of A Comics Artist, written by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller. Before that book I didn't know of either of the authors. Didn't know both have been, and still are, educating legions of readers and students with their knowledge of the arts and design. Fine, you can call me an ignorant for being an ignorant about Dooley and Heller. The book is a result of their mutual love of an art form that has inspired, entertained, and educated readers for decades. I had limited access to comics growing up. Still piles and piles of used Archie, Tintin, and Asterix would find their way to my hands. When my cousins would be reading Archie with a straight face, I'd be reading the same page (we read at the same time) giggling like a school boy. I poured over Tintin like an addict. I never wanted the pages to end because it would mean the adventure would too. I wasn't able to run to the local store to pick up the next adventure because they carried the series in Bangla. As much as I love my native tongue, couldn't endure Tintin in it; English it had to be - never mind it wasn't Herge's native language either.My cousins, however, exposed me to some comics in Bangla. Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, Superman, Batman, as well as our own Batul the Great, Handa Bhonda (the 'n' just a nasal tone), Nonte Fonte (all 3 by the great Narayan Debnath), and countless other lesser known series. Bangladesh had its own version of Mad: it was an extremely funny publication called Unmad - when you're done chuckling, the first syllable is pronounced 'Oon', and the latter, 'mother' minus -er. My favorite of the Unmad pack, Ahsan Habib, editor/writer, youngest brother to famous Bangali novelists, Humayun Ahmed and Md. Zafar Iqbal (both educated in the US). As a young boy, political and social cartoons and satires shouldn't have appeealed to my sensibilities but those of Shishir and Ronobi I loved regardless. Their ability to capture the essence of the current social status with such economy mystified me. Ronobi is a legend and one may not know what he looks like but (s)he will know who Tokai is.
God knows how many days and nights I've spent doodling my own cartoons and sticking them in my scrapbook. I miss that scrapbook. One particular series I drew often - I sucked at drawing - was of a bearded assassin who thought he was smart, spewing poetry (he thought) and being loyal to whomever he worked for, but sucked as an assassin; people made fun of his big sword and he felt he got no respect. Almost twenty years later, that particular cartoon's memory makes me shudder. What on earth made me, out of thousands of topics to doodle about, draw up the comical assassin? I wish I knew.
So here I am, at 31, after having gone through hundreds of books on writing and filmmaking, realize comedians and comic books have been the most successful in teaching this film student: Comedians (good ones, of course) on the art of choosing the right sequence of words for sound, and comic books for visual storytelling. A good comedian, I like to say, is someone who knows when to use 'testicles' instead of 'balls.' A 3-panel strip in The Daily News many years ago taught me one valuable lesson in filmmaking - geography: your audience should never be confused about where your actions are taking place.
The Education of A Comics Artist is divided into 5 sections - (i) The Comics Field, (iii) Widening the Field, (iii) Education Illustrated, (iv) The Comics Profession, and (v) Comics Studies. The first section alone covers with several chapters on each category written by well known artists - Magazine Cartoons, Editorial Cartoons, Political Cartoons, Comic Strips, Kids' and Teens' Cartoons, Action/Adventure Comics, Alternative Comics, Graphic Novels, and Miscellany. won't go through the Table of Contents and put Amazon out of business but I thought you might want to know if your particular cup of tea was served in this book. The chapters are either essays or interviews. The essays reveal the artists as they are and they all seem to have enjoyed contributing to this book. And the interviews cover questions you, the comics fan, would've asked your favorite artist. I've often read interviews where the interviewer is busy being a smart ass. This book gets to the point and wastes no space.
When I'd first read it, sitting at a local Starbucks, and after jotting down sections of the book that stood out for me, I had the intense urge to tell everyone about it. "Why haven't you read this"? I wanted to shake someone and ask and tell them about all the little lessons I found revealing in the book; there are so many of them packed in this 265-page paperback. So I wrote Steven Heller, asking permission to use excerpts/quotes from the book on my blog review, fully expecting nothing. I've written other writers in the past asking the same but most have never replied. Naturally, I didn't expect to find an email back from Mr. Heller - the same day. Soon after, I received another email from none other than co-author, Michael Dooley! With both their permission and support in tow I set off to write my review of the book. I have to admit, it took me 3 months to gather up the courage to write this. I have been putting it off, thinking every time, "I'm not ready for this. They're probably expecting someone who knows how to write and I can't write!" "Oh no, what have I done...I should've never written him!" "I'll disappoint them for misunderstanding the book and I'll simply...fuck things up!" After a paralyzing three months I realized, "I'm not reviewing. I'm showing my appreciation." Surely, I could put appreciation into words. Besides, review is so 2006.
Without further ado, here are some excerpts that stood out.
Chapter: Cartoons at the New Yorker by Bob Mankoff
In this two page essay, Mankoff cites 6 rules on becoming a New Yorker cartoonist, although stating "Follow them closely and satisfaction is, if not guaranteed, at least a statistical possibility." I'll only cite #s 1 and 2.
#1: "Get an education but not too good an education. You should learn just enough about the world to make fun of it, but not too much more. Real knowledge will only depress you."
#2: Don't just submit one cartoon to the magazine. You may think it's a great cartoon idea, but to me, it'll look like the only idea you ever had. Instead, submit ten ideas. Why ten? Because nine out of ten times, things just don't work." (pg. 3)
Tell me the above advice works only for cartoonists and I'll tell you you won't make very good cartoonist either.
Chapter: Wednesday "Look Day" and the Freelance Magazine Cartooner by R.C. Harvey
" The business of gag cartooning has changed as the market has, but the art of single-panel cartoon remains the same. At its best, the gag cartoon is an exquisite blend of word and picture, in which, ideally, neither makes sense without the other." (pg. 7)
Chapter: Stop Them Damned Pictures by Ben Sargent
"One of the historical anecdotes most treasured by the editorial cartooning profession is a quote attributed to New York political boss William Marcy Tweed when he and his corrupt regime were being tormented by the relentless attacks of cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. "I don't care what the papers write about me," Tweed is supposed to have said. "My constituents can't read. But they sure can see pictures. Stop them damned pictures." (pg. 15)
137 years later the damned pictures still aggravate corrupt politicians around the world.
Chapter: The Obligation to be Honest, an interview with Tony Auth.
" Q: What makes an effective political cartoon?" "A: I think the most effective political cartoons are those that make a case for a point of view, instead of merely celebrating it. These are the drawings that elicit responses from readers along the lines of "you made me see that in a new light," probably the highest praise we can get." (pg. 19)
Chapter: Gut Feeling and Waves of Intuition, an interview with Mark Alan Stamaty
"Q; How would you rate yourself as a draftsman? And is being one more important than the other?" "A: I don't know how to rate myself as a draftsman. Or maybe I do know, but am unwilling to face the ugly truth. But, on the other hand, given enough time, I think I can draw pretty damn well. But I'm not as fast and facile as some people and there are techniques I haven't mastered that I probably could master"..."In cartooning though, as far as I'm concerned, the big issue is the writing..." (pg. 41).
Chapter: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Archie Andrews by Jessica Abel
Great chapter on the author's struggle with story structure and how she's devised her own structure (for that one you have to read the book)
"The first comic I ever drew, in 1988, was drawn on small sheets of office paper"..."In the ensuing years I drew a lot more comics, and I learned about Bristol board, perspective, steel nib pens, figure drawing, India ink, writing dialogue, sable brushes, capturing emotion on a character's face, beveled rulers, and even the Ames lettering guide. But I did not learn a single thing about how to give structure to a story. I even took a class in screenwriting, and another in fiction writing. I majored in English, I read a million novels, but no one had ever helped me to understand what makes Jane Austen, for just a single well-loved example, tick." (pg. 56)
Chapter: The First Rule: There Are No Rules, an interview with Jim Steranko.
"I learned to draw from the comics, but all my storytelling techniques came from the comics, but all my storytelling techniques and processes are derivative of a cinematic aesthetics. When I was five I saw my first movie, the noir film The Mask of Dimitrios, which had a profound impact on me. As a kid, I was too poor to afford the price of a ticket so I'd often break into theaters, find an obscure seat, and enhance my education. My teachers were Hitchcock, Siodmak, Welles, Capra, Walsh, and Curtiz, who had the most impact on me." (pg. 68)
Chapter: Learning to "Get Real", an interview with Bill Sienkiewicz
"Q: Describe the process of development from emulating to assimilating the works of other artists." "A: Study it. Copy it. Learn from it. Take that works and channel it through your own experience and abilities. Then: Let it go. Forget it, but know it as a part of yourself. It's a Zen thing. And someone will do the very same thing with your work. An endless cycle. It's the natural order of things." (pg. 80)
Chapter: The Need To Do Something Different, an interview with Dave McKean.
"Q: How do you envision the potential of photography to advance the comics medium even further?" "A: I think it's a useful aid for observation and adding elements that are outside of yourself. I'd hate to feel that I know everything about how people move and talk and how light falls on everything. I think that is why many comics look like you've seen them so many times before..." (pg. 85)
Chapter: What's The Big Idea? an interview with Mark Newgarden
This little excerpt is nothing compared to the rest of this great interview...but here it is.
"Q: What ingredients are proven laff-getters?" "A: Suffering, regret, compulsion, humiliation, disappointment, betrayal, decay, death. And big noses." (pg. 101)
In my notebook, I'd written in a little corner: "Where/when do you draw the line? When you no longer see the bigger picture." I don't know how you will feel about me ending this appreciation with that line. It, you will say, has nothing to do with the piece at all. I don't know, it might. Ask a story writer why (s)he has decided where the story should end and (s)he will likely say, "Cuz it ends there." In any case, the rest of the book on the business and education of comics is too expansive for me to whittle down to mere excerpts. It probably did not justice to the ones I have above either. However, I promise you, whether or not you are in the comics profession, or aspire to, this book will make a whole lot of sense to keep and go back to once in a while when you feel uncertain about the career you've chosen.
You have to really love doing something to endure rejection after rejection or the pain and suffering along the way. The process of creation is no different from other creative work; all involve the same, or vastly similar, set of steps to fruition. How can a book about educating comics artists have such an impact on me? 'It just did' seems apt and satisfying an answer to me. That's probably what happens when a book picks you.