Let’s Talk Making Comics, the Watson-Guptill Way: Looking at Three Recent “How To Make Comics” Books [Review]

By | September 16th, 2014
Posted in Reviews | 2 Comments

Before we begin, some disclosure.

Hi, I’m Matthew Meylikhov. You may remember me from such websites as Multiversity Comics and Some Other Blog That Couldn’t Beat CBR at the Eisners. And, on occasion, I make comics — both in terms of writing and producing my own, or lettering books for friends.

I do it mostly for fun, though. Nothing too serious, nothing that would make me famous as a “comic book writer” against my semi-notorious reputation as a “comic book critic/journalist/blogger,” but I’ve certainly worked on my fair share of strips (like “Detective Space Cat” or those newspaper-style strips that appear in the back of “Morning Glories”) and shorts (like “Stuck”). I’ve been asked to write things or participate in projects, and while I can’t say at this point that I’ve done a comic specifically with the hope of ‘breaking in’ or turning it into a career, I’ve certainly had my fair share of runs around the track to be familiar with general success, failure, what works and what doesn’t.

I open the article this way for two reasons.

One, I think it’s important when talking about the books we’re going to talk about today to establish what role in which I view them. To some people, simply putting in time and effort to make a strip on a regular basis makes them a bonafide comic creator, but I don’t see myself as anything more than an avid fan who looks at books weekly with a critical eye and just happens to do some extra curricular things on the side for fun.

Two, I also think it’s important to note that while I do not take my work in creating comics seriously right now (which may or may not color the rest of this article in your eyes), I do have ideas for projects more full-length than what I’ve done so far, to perhaps someday attempt to see it all realized on a grander scale. I have my share of unproduced or unfinished pitches, and I’m always talking over ideas with close friends.

So with all that out of the way in your mind, today we’re going to look at three books recently put out by Watson-Guptill that goes over just how some people create comics: “Words for Pictures” by Brian Michael Bendis,” “Foundations in Comic Book Art” by John Paul Lowe, and “Make Comics like the Pros” by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente.

While every popular form of artistic expression in the medium is always full of people looking to figure out how to do it on their own, there’s one consistency about comics that I’ve noticed: no matter how many times the question is answered, there is always someone out there ready to ask a pro how to break into comics. That’s the question for many comic readers, in fact; reading the monthly copies of our favorite books is one thing, but for most fans of this medium that’s not enough.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably a bigger element of the fanbase than in any other medium. Video games, for example, require a very specific amount of education and dedication in order to create; there are so many different facets involved in programming let alone the artistic and visual side that for many fans of gaming that’s a mountain far too high to climb. Film is another good example of something that fans repeatedly try and figure out how the pros do it, but film is different than comics in the 21st century in that it’s easy to get a camera, shoot your story and throw it up on YouTube; whether it’s professional or not is secondary and often times superfluous to being successful (see: Fred).

But comics? Comics are a completely different beast. It’s not as “simple” as making a film (I use this phrase very lightly; I know making films is incredibly hard) and it’s not as “hard” as making a game, but it falls somewhere in between with enough aspects from both sides of the spectrum to make it a perfect storm of simplicity and complexity.

So if you’ve ever been to a panel at a con, or if you follow any comic creator on any form of social media, you have probably seen this question asked and somewhat answered or discussed. How does one make comics? What’s the writing process like? How do you construct a page? Where do you get your ideas from? What’s it like to collaborate with so-and-so? How do you break into comics? (Heck, you might even see those questions asked in professional interviews.)

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It’s a valid question, but it’s one asked ad nauseum — and there are only so many ways you can ask it.

So what better way than to answer the question by offering up a book? That’s exactly what Watson-Guptill of the Crown Publishing Group (a subsidiary of Random House) did — and they were kind enough to let us look at three of them.

Lets talk about these one at a time, for convenience.

Words for Pictures

If you’re interested in writing, then the book for you is “Words for Pictures” by Brian Michael Bendis. Collecting the thoughts and notes of the seminal Marvel creator who is at least partially responsible for the current creative success and popularity that the company is seeing, “Words for Pictures” is a rather big book full of information straight from one of the biggest names in comics — and to that end, it feels pretty essential if you want to be the next Brian Michael Bendis.

That statement feels a bit loaded, but I still see it as true: if you look at comics and see yourself wanting to be the next Bendis, that seems like a good ambition to have — to the same extent that Bendis notes that he wanted to grow up to be Walt Simonson. While the book is very Marvel-centric in that almost every example here is pulled from work done at Marvel, it’s laid out somewhat like a treasure map: here is what you need to start with, here are the paths you can take, and what it leads to is a career potentially as lofty and impressive and long and fruitful as Bendis’. Bendis may be a polarizing writer to fans of Big Two comics, but he’s certainly been in the modern iteration of the industry long enough to see it evolve and grow — and this book is like getting to look behind the curtain, at least in terms of writing Spider-Man.

However, here’s an important thing to note about this book: it’s a little misleading. If you’re buying this book to get an idea of how to write comics the Bendis way, then that’s about a third of what you’re getting; this isn’t so much a book about his writing as it is two things — one, a collection of writings about making comics from Bendis and his friends, and two, a collection of information that can be found on Bendis’ tumblr (or, as I understand it, in the class that he teaches in Portland). And that’s not me trying to sell the book short or undermine it; it is literally full of interviews with Bendis’ friends in the industry, 90% of which are Marvel creators or people behind the scenes there like fellow former-Architects Ed Brubaker or Matt Fraction and CB Cebulski, and then there is a section that’s literally copy/pasted from asks on his tumblr. The opening of the book is also essentially a written iteration of his TED Talk, in which he explains how he broke into comics and then notes how it won’t inherently work for everyone, a statement that’s entirely fair and, to be honest, necessary.

Also, to be completely honest, that the book focuses so much on Bendis’ Marvel work makes it a bit tough to fully recommend. To an extent the book does put itself into a corner a bit; the information is applicable across the board for the most part when it comes to general tips, but a lot of the looks you get at behind-the-scenes pitches and scripts are all geared towards Marvel-specific properties (one section features Matt Fraction explaining the creation process of “Hawkeye,” and you get to see all of Sam Humphries’ “Avengers AI” pitch, for example). But for most comic creators in 2014, I’d say it’s more about wanting to create your own material rather than get yourself to a place where Marvel or DC wants to hire you, which is a point Bendis brings up; you’re only get to get hired at a place like Marvel if you essentially ‘show your worth’ elsewhere in comics, so you need to start there. And while there’s still a fair deal of people out there who have a great idea for Spider-Man and just want the opportunity to run with that (something Bendis cops to, as early as the age of 6), you need to work on your own material first.

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Words for Pictures Excerpt

So Bendis’ book is essentially a mish-mash of interviews, tips on writing, thoughts on how to write scripts and pitches, and material found on his tumblr. This is “How To Make Comics, The Bendis Way,” and that either works for you or it doesn’t. It’s very focused towards his point of view with comic writing and creation, but that’s probably obvious; when you buy a book from some pro-chef that has a show on the Food Network, you wouldn’t expect the recipes to be from the Epic Meal Time guys, would you? But to that end, the book isn’t inherently more helpful than, say, the “Powers” script book that was released a few years ago, in which you can read all of Bendis’ scripts for that series — it doesn’t give you commentary on process, but it is a bit more of an in-depth look at what his process is like.

“Words for Pictures” is an interesting book, and one that I could recommend for an audience of people already inherently interested in its content. In many ways it feels like a biography of Bendis’ rise in comics with pit-stops to talk to Fraction and Brubaker and Alex Maleev, all of which is fairly fascinating in its own right for process junkies and people interested in the answer to questions like, “No, but really, where do you get your ideas from?” (Note: this is not actually asked in the book.)

Flipping gears to the other side of the table, if you’re interested in illustration, there’s “Foundations in Comic Book Art” by John Paul Lowe, which is labeled as a SCAD Creative Essential (ie, it’s literally usable as a teaching device in schools — particularly, the Savannah College of Art and Design). Full of information curated by Lowe, this is almost the complete inversion of Bendis’ book both in context and execution.

Foundations in Comic Book Art

Let me put it simply: if you want to draw comic books, this is a great guide. The book goes through what I would imagine is a standard basic class at SCAD; we’re introduced to the concepts of perspective, of creating grids, of drawing still life and using your friends as models, of utilizing modern tools and digital devices, of pencils and inks, of what pencils and what inks and brushes to buy — so I repeat, if you want to draw comic books, this is a great guide.

That being said, it’s tough for me to honestly say how much information given here is required reading for people that draw comics as much as I can look at “Words for Pictures” and see what does or doesn’t apply to something I’ve written or tried. One of the central ideas in “Foundations” is that the book should be a guide, but you need to develop your own style. Utilizing a number of excerpts for work done by SCAD grads (like known madman and my favorite martian Tradd Moore of “Luther Strode”), the book shows how different things will inherently work for different people — whether it’s down to something as simple as brush strokes or set-up or perspective or cross-hatching or inking or… you name it. It’s a multi-focused book in that manner; it wants to teach you, but it’s never really specific on what skills you need, what skills are handy, and what skills are just good to kinda know.

Granted: that seems sort of obvious. Like writing, you’ll develop your own artistic style and figure it out as you go. The work you do today will be less refined than the work you do ten years from now, and it’s all a learning process. The difficulty of illustration makes it more of an uphill battle than writing (because any schlub can write about any thing — like this article!), but in terms of assembling weapons to bring into battle with you, “Foundations” seems like a good one.

Of course, even if you never plan to draw a comic book in your life, the book is still fairly indispensable. I come from the school of thought that knowledge is power; if there is something you can learn in a field that is relevant to your studies or interests, you may as well learn it. And while I personally can’t draw to save my life (despite practicing on many occasions, sans life-threatening situation), there’s a lot to learn and try out with this book. “Foundations” does make the assumption that, yes, you want to be an illustrator and have some semblance of talent, but it doesn’t really exclude the clueless like myself from being able to learn a thing or two. It’s a very focused book, as it should be, but it’s a useful guide that should be on the shelf of writers just as much as artists, honestly.

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The biggest thing we can pick up from this book is that it levels the playing field a little bit. Not so much that I can now draw a cat that doesn’t look like a circle with awkward lines, but there is a good amount of knowledge we can now share in terms of having a dialogue. That to me seems like the biggest success of the book; it’s definitely a book that focuses on the development of an artist, but it’s useful for people on the other side of the table who want to understand art better — who want to be able to talk about it, critique it, understand it. Far too often (particularly with reviews, as many people will often note) a lot of the focus on storytelling is given to the writer or what he or she or they brings to the table — but in a visual medium, that hardly seems fair. We read comics not just because we want to see words in circles and boxes, but because we want to see art; this book, as simple as I make it sounds, helps foster a better understanding of that.

Now, in doing a bit of prep for this article, I will note: not only are there books that I think talk to the non-artist audience a bit better (Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics,” for one, is a book that should be on every fan’s shelf), but Watson-Guptill actually publishes other books that seem like they’ll hit that shared space a bit more, like “Sketch!” by France Belleville-Van Stone. Not having had access to that book, I can’t tell you for sure — but it does describe itself as for “non-artists.” However, even with knowing that book is out there, “Foundations” is a good resource because it does what it says on the cover: it shows you the foundations. And given that this entire medium is built on the visual aspect, it seems like it’d be a disservice for upcoming creators not to invest in this book to learn from it.

So! We’ve talked about writing and we’ve talked about illustration, but one simple fact remains: these are only somewhat useful, depending on your focus. It’s kind of like doing work for your major; if you know that you want to write then Bendis’ book is pretty decent, and if you know you want to illustration, then I’d recommend Lowe’s book.

But what if you don’t fall into those categories, or if these books don’t sound like they’re for you? What if you don’t care about nuances in writing or what works at a Big Two publisher, if you don’t care about the different facets that go into art before a pencil even touches a paper?

What if you just want to make comics?

Then “Make Comics Like the Pros” by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente is the only book of these three that you actually need.

Make Comics like the Pros

Now, I’ll preface my upcoming writing with a note that, again, is kind of a loaded statement. The book is literally called “Make Comics Like the Pros,” and if that doesn’t express the intent of the book then my qualifier that it’s the only one you need surely does. But what is important to note about the three books that we have on the table is that one book wants to help you be a better writer, one wants to help you with your artistic craft, and the other doesn’t particularly care if you’re good or not — and that, to me, feels like the best perspective to get from a book that’s going to tell you how to do something. That sheer objective element, that “come on, lets just figure this out” aspect of it makes it, to me, the premiere teacher available.

“Make Comics like the Pros” is a process book that goes, from top to bottom, what creating a book is like. It’s somewhat from the writer’s perspective in that it starts with a writer trying to suss out his idea before finding the rest of the people he needs to help make a comic, but what this book does different than the others is that it walks you through the process of creating and releasing a pitch in an interesting and informative way that the other books don’t match; this is the most comprehensive guide to the creative process that I’ve seen, having looked at a number of books on the subject outside of this article (Will Eisner’s Sequential Art and Storytelling books, Scott McCloud’s books, “Make Webcomics,” etc); if you want to make a comic book in 2014 and get it out there for the masses, this is a helpful reference guide.

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As I noted, the book very literally walks you through a pitch process done by Pak and Van Lente. Showcasing the process of creating “Swordmaids” with Colleen Coover, you’ll get to see the book at every step of the process, with different forms of insightful commentary throughout. What this book does exponentially better than the others is that it includes tips and tricks for literally every creative member of your potential team; in addition to notes for the writers and artists, the book comes full of advice for inkers, letterers and editors, and is full of useful and educational terminology throughout (I finally understand what a flatter does!) that makes this book a definitive resource. Sometimes this is done through guest quotes and stories, like the incredible one-in-a-million success story of Tim Seeley and Mike Norton’s pitch for “Revival” (which apparently involved Seeley giving Eric Stephenson a brief idea and pointing to Norton as the artist, to which Stephenson replied, “So when are we putting it out?”), and at other times it’s done via examples from Pak and Van Lente’s incredibly lengthy and successful career in the industry. Either way, all of it is broken down towards the different elements in the process of making a comic in a way that’s easy to understand, easy to access and easy to remember and utilize for the future.

To that end, “Make Comics” is very much a book that does what it says on the cover. With the blurb “THE INSIDE SCOOP on how to WRITE, DRAW & SELL YOUR COMIC BOOKS and GRAPHIC NOVELS” written next to the title, you’ll be hard pressed to find that the book doesn’t fulfill any one of those elements. And it’s quite comprehensive, too; the pitch process from start to finish is one thing, but you’ll see how to package your pitch and, if the pitch is unsuccessful, what to do to get the book out on your own — including but not limited to a general breakdown of costs and an explanation of the solicitation procedure. So while it’s a handy guide to putting together the shell of a comic (good content not withstanding), it also feels like something that could be a rather useful guide to anyone that just wants to be informed on how comics work. While the book won’t guarantee you any form of success, it will leave you a rather informed spectator of the sport of creation.

To me, this is the “How To” book that most readers will find useful. While I’d probably recommend “Foundations” to more people (just to help showcase the artistic process to those that might not really understand it) than “Words for Pictures,” “Make Comics Like the Pros” is the book that seems like the one most up and coming creators actually need. It’s an incredibly fair and impartial read with useful insight from pros done in a way that explains all the basics and leaves the rest up to you; in fact, I’ll note at this point that I had a checklist of things I was hoping each book I looked at would cover or explain, and “Make Comics” is the only one that covered 90% of the boxes of topics I was interested in seeing.

Now, as I noted at the beginning of the piece, I’m a non-successful comic dabbler (I still shy away from calling myself a creator). I write one three-panel strip once a month, and I letter a handful of books — but even with my incredibly limited professional interaction with the industry (if we abstain from calling “comic journalist” as a professional interaction during a fairly formal review, I suppose?) there’s still a wealth of knowledge I can take from this book when composing a three-panel strip, lettering someone else’s book or just interacting with the creators that I work for. That’s right: the book tells you the do’s and don’ts of talking to people, as there really is no stone left unturned.

That’s how useful this book ultimately is, and why I’d recommend this book the most at the end of the day (as well as give it its own section in a huge, multi-part review piece here).

That, and of course props to Van Lente and Pak adding a note to creators to be nice to the journalists they have to interact with. In an age where creators sometimes say that comic journalism is superfluous, unnecessary, and that no one cares what the pundits have to say, it was nice to see a nod our way. Thanks, guys!

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I’ll end this piece by giving the following mildly-informed not-guaranteed-for-success piece of advice: if there’s one general notion you can take from any of these books, it’s that the best thing you can do if you want to make comics is just do what you want.

I say that not to disparage any particular creative process that’s gone into in these tomes or reveal the secret of why “Detective Space Cat” isn’t a household name, but I think that holds more true than anything else. While these books are incredibly interesting and informative reads, they’re not the be-all end-all books that can make, break or save your career. Nothing in any of these books holds the secret key to the gate people go through to “break in”; you have to find that on your own.

But one of the key things that all these books feature and show is that if you love comics, if you have a passion and a drive for creating comics, then you should make comics. There are ways that may be successful for one person and there are certainly lessons others learned so you don’t have to, but the only way you’re going to really make it into comics is to sit down, write, draw, create — and that’s the best lesson any of these books will give you.

So there. I just saved you from reading all of them! THE SECRET INGREDIENT TO MAKING COMICS IS PEOPLE… MAKING COMICS!

Granted, all these books are good. I’d recommend each of them in varying degrees to different people who are exploring different facets of comics, and that’s very much their purpose; while that seems like a non-committal statement it also feels like the most honest one. If you want to write? Bendis has some good words for you! Would you like to learn some tricks in drawing? Lowe’s a great teacher. And if you want to know some of the road blocks you’ll run into and how to troubleshoot them, then let Van Lente and Pak be your guides. Watson-Guptill curated some great talents to put out helpful resource books, and that’s how they should be seen: as at least three of the books to hold on your shelf of educational material that you can reference when you need it.

But most of all, the information all of them will ultimately impart is that if you have an idea that speaks to you in some way and is something you want to communicate with some reader somewhere, then make the comic. It probably won’t be perfect the first time out, you may struggle to get a readership and you may wonder what it’s all for — but if there’s one really great lesson that these creators will tell you in these books, at a panel, or somewhere on social media, it’s that you do it for the love of the game. That, in and of itself, is quite a reward.

Money and a sustainable living as well, too, of course! Don’t get me wrong. But there has to be a whole lotta love and passion and drive involved, and no book on craft will teach you that part.

My favorite strip we ever did for Detective Space Cat, #63

Matthew Meylikhov

Once upon a time, Matthew Meylikhov became the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Multiversity Comics, where he was known for his beard and fondness for cats. Then he became only one of those things. Now, if you listen really carefully at night, you may still hear from whispers on the wind a faint voice saying, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as bad as everyone says it issss."