A Gift From a Master

Every now and then, a book comes out that is so good, that I can only view it as a gift from its author. Two books of this caliber have recently come out: Edward Tufte‘s Beautiful Evidence, and Scott McCloud‘s Making Comics. I’ll save the Tufte for another day, and talk about the McCloud for now.

I’ve been working on projects using Digital Storytelling techniques since the nineties, and McCloud’s books have been a key tool in that work. Why? Well, first of all, digital comics are one of the many possible manifestations of digital storytelling. Setting that aside for a moment, though, there’s a deeper reason that McCloud’s work is important: his analysis of the craft is so rich and deep that it provides both a guide to broader topics in communication and the visual arts, as well as an exemplar for how to communicate about the workings of these fields.

All of McCloud’s books analyzing comics have been written as comics. His first book, Understanding Comics, dealt with the core syntactic and semantic elements that make comics work; the followup, Reinventing Comics, covered the potential for change and new directions in comics, including their transformation as they entered the digital sphere. Sounds pretty thorough — so why is this third book needed?

Making Comics fills in the gap between the general theory covered in Understanding Comics and the translation of that theory into actual comics-making practice. In other words, what is covered here is how the elements of comics are harnessed in the process of actually making them. This does not refer to the “here’s how artist X draws character Y” approach taken by a million dreary “You can draw comics too!” tutorials, but rather refers to how symbolic elements and aspects of person and place are chosen and translated into an actual rendering for the purpose of telling a story.

The audience for this book is most emphatically not just budding comics artists and comics enthusiasts — McCloud’s analysis of process in comics creation sheds light on a broad range of topics in the study of media and communication. In particular, any educators who are serious about these issues in the context of their own practice should definitely consider picking up this book — and its two predecessors. Me, I think I’ll try to make it to one of McCloud’s talks to thank him in person for his wonderful gift…