The Education of a Comics Artist

I was hoping that this would be a book I could give to the head of my Illustration dept or the president of the college, to open their eyes to the potential for teaching the creation of comics at the art school I attended (and where I still hang out). But despite a blurb on the back cover suggesting that it’s about “how to teach, think, and talk about comics in the classroom and beyond”, it’s more of a collection of essays and interviews in which cartoonists say a lot of things, which they hope will be interesting and informative. Not quite the same thing.

In particular, the book opens with a series of essays by magazine, editorial, political, alt-weekly strip, and kid-friendly cartoonists… and if you’re at all familiar with those markets, you can guess that they tend to spend a lot of time talking about how there’s little work available, and even fewer opportunities for new creators. Much space is given over to fond reminiscences about the various golden ages (of cartoons, strips, comic books, etc.), which is interesting, but not very helpful. It actually makes for a pretty convincing argument for any school looking into adding comics classes not to, and any school that does, to drop them. Educational? Certainly. Encouraging? No.

The book is lacking in illustrations. There are some, which help to identify the cartoonist who’s writing an essay or being interviewed, by visual association with their work. But when a cartoonist I’m not familiar with (at least not by name) is asked in an interview about the features of his drawing, I end up feeling a bit lost. (Even just identifying what books or strips so-and-so has done would have been helpful.) I understand that corporations own a lot of these artists’ work, and permission might be dicey or expensive. But it’s ironic that a book in which more than one cartoonist bemoans the shrinking market for their work, that there aren’t even any original illustrations in it.

Likewise, a lot of the essays assume a level of familiarity with “who’s who” in cartooning. If you don’t know who (for example) R. Crumb, Mort Walker, and Curt Swan (and a bunch of lesser-known names) are and what they’ve done, or what their work looks like, a lot of passing references will pass you right by. And if you do know who they are, perhaps you already know much of what you’re reading.

As for the book’s design, the cover is creative (if a little self-indulgently “artistic”), but the font used for the title and chapter headings is an eyesore right out of the 1970s. I can visualise applying this typeface from a page of Letraset rub-on type, or watching a dot-matrix printer buzz it out as the built-in “headline” font of a primitive desktop publishing program. Please don’t use a font like this unless you really want to evoke images of lapels and neckties wide enough draw comic strips on.

I don’t want to give the impression that this book is useless. There’s valuable information in here, and much of it’s very interesting to read. But it’s hit or miss, and leaves a lot to the reader to glean an “education” from it.

One pleasant surprise that will be meaningless to anyone else, but which I’ll mention anyways, was a comment in the essay about Silver-Age fashion heroine Katy Keene. It explains how creator Bill Woggan scrupulously credited the fans who sent in designs for Katy to wear, including - in those more innocent days - their full home addresses. The essayist selects one at random to cite: a girl who lived about half a mile from my current home.

2 Responses to “The Education of a Comics Artist”

  1. Michael Dooley Says:

    Although I have been writing about the arts in general, and comics in particular, for about 20 years, “The Education of a Comics Artist” is the first book for which I am fully responsible, as co-editor. It’s also one of which I am extremely proud. Consequently, I’m trying my best to resist my impulse to respond at length to much of the above criticism that I consider to be, umm, mistaken.

    However, I feel I must at least correct one misrepresentation… okay, inaccuracy… in this review. The reviewer claims that “…Comics Artist” contains no original illustrations. However, as I note in my foreword, our “Education Illustrated” section has seven pages of comics commentary especially created for our book, by Nicholas Blechman, David Heatley, Dan James, and Rick Meyerowitz. Additionally, most of the other reproductions are fairly unique, seldom-seen works, including two student projects, one by Brian Bolland, and a Ho Che Anderson preparatory sketch for “King.”

    I’m tempted to go on, but I’ll restrain myself. I am pleased to hear that you believe the book is not completely without merit.

    I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in learning more about “The Education of a Comics Artist” should explore the links and resources at the publisher’s site, starting here:

    Happy reading,
    Michael Dooley

  2. Todd Says:

    I apologize about that technical inaccuracy. The foreward, which consists mostly of a litany of who wrote pieces for which section, failed to maintain my interest, so I missed the fact that those seven pages, which appear without comment or explanation within the book, were created specifically for it. My original comment - about the irony of the general lack of original illustrations, in a book that would benefit from them and which bemoans the fact that illustrators are going without work - still stands. And the fact that some of the reproductions are rarities elicits from me a resounding, “so?” In most cases, I don’t believe that adds much to their value to the reader of this book.

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