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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The first thing I did when Bloomsbury asked me to write a textbook about making comics was to ask Leigh Ann Beavers to be the co-author. I had gone to her a couple of years earlier when I was searching for a professor at my university to co-teach a hybrid creative-writing/studio-arts course on comics. Co-teaching, like co-writing, is a weird business that’s mostly about the hard-to-quantify intangibles of personal interaction. I can’t remember who suggested I talk to Leigh Ann, but after one meandering chat in her oddly non-rectangular office, she was on board.

We taught Making Comics for the first time in spring 2017. It was a massive success, and so when we taught it again in 2019, we decided to change everything. When we teach it for a third time in spring 2021, we’ll have to change it yet again—though our next roster of students will have copies of Creating Comics for guidance.

A lot happened between the 2017 and 2019 classes, and those changes shaped the book. I originally approached the creative process the way creators at Marvel and DC tend to: a writer writes a script, and then an artist draws the script. I also teach fiction writing and playwriting, so I focused the first half of the term on script-writing, and Leigh Ann focused the second half on transforming those scripts into actual comics. But that process was born from a business model that employs separate writers and artists, each engaged in multiple projects, each on its own conveyor-belt of a production schedule.

Why begin with a script? Because editors can read them. It gives them an idea of what a later comic could be, plus there’s something tangible to critique and revise. Editors, like writers, think in words. But comics aren’t primarily about words. They’re foremost a visual art. What visual artist begins by writing a description of what she plans to draw? Why not just start drawing?

That’s how our 2019 students began. We told them to draw something— literally anything. “Doodle,” we said. Fifteen minutes later their sketchpads were alive with fish and robots and half-human bat creatures—many of which became characters in their later comics. They learned about them by drawing them (the first homework assignment was fifty individual character sketches), not by describing them in words and then trying to translate those word-ideas into images.

Image First. That’s what I wanted to call the textbook. The introduction is a diagnosis for why Art departments have been more resistant to comics than essentially any other area in academia (including even Philosophy and Classics, where I had my first writing and classroom collaborations). The image-focused chapters are the cure.

After completing the first draft, I recognized that I was suffering from the passion of a convert, and so during revision we identified multiple approaches for creating comics:

Image-first (let the drawing process drive the story),

Story-first (the appropriate default setting for memoir),

Layout-first (there are more out there than you think),

Script-first (yes, it has its place too—though preferably not a medium-defining dominant one),

and Canvas-first (a smorgasbord of the best of the above).

Still, image-first is at the heart of book, providing a creative corrective for a script-dominated field. So instead of drawing from a prescribed script, the book explores the range of possibilities for how two juxtaposed images can interact—and having experimented with them all, artists can then select their favorite paths to continue down further. And each path has its own range of possibilities that we literally graph into units that can be shuffled, redrawn, reordered, and drawn again—always with new narrative effects emerging from the open experimentation. Instead of treating a comic as sequence of conceptually separate panels, we look at the page as a whole—because it is. A page is a canvas that must be understood as a single unit too. And if a canvas includes words, the artist-writer must consider how their renderings, placements, and interactions with images produces meanings distinct from words in a prose-only context.

Though our course is titled Making Comics, Making Comics is already an excellent book by Scott McCloud (2006)—and also now Lynda Barry (2019). I recommend them both—and also Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. But they’re not sufficient. Barry’s is a brilliant (and for me emotionally moving) how-to for finding and unlocking a piece of your lost and probably somewhat damaged childhood self. Please read it. The others approach comics not as an open art form, but as a genre-shaped and industry-prescribed medium. That’s useful. But any conventions-first approach is also purposely limited. We tried to wipe the slate clean and identify a new set of underlying fundamentals.

Our subtitle changed too. Bloomsbury original asked for “A Writer’s and Illustrator’s Guide,” but reducing an artist to only an illustrator also reduces comics art to only illustrations, which illustrate words and ideas that exists before the image is created. Comics certainly can be that, but they can be more too.  

Because we wanted to throw the widest possible creative net (because it increases the odds of individual artists discovering something new-to-them to explore and uniquely expand), we avoid historical and medium-based definitions of comics and accept that any two images placed next to each other could be a comic. Some scholars might flinch at the radical inclusivity (though as a scholar, I would have plenty more to say on the subject), but that concern is literally academic. Creating Comics is instead about the hands-on creative process, but with a birds-eye perspective of the sometimes-overlooked possibilities.  

I’m also ridiculously proud of the fifty-or-so illustrations (and, since Creating Comics isn’t itself a comic, they really are illustrations). I’m a fledging digital artist, and so my contributions offer a fun contrast to Leigh Ann’s professional inks, but even better: the book is filled with artwork by our 2019 students. We were in the process of writing the first draft while teaching the second course, and as their comics began to emerge, we suddenly saw the obvious: they were already our collaborators. Without the course, we couldn’t have written the book, and our students’ artwork is the ideal document of the concepts and processes we describe.

And the grand finale:  a 143-page anthology of comics excerpts by over forty comics artists, including Barry, Bechdel, Davis, Hernandez, Satrapi, Tamaki, Tomine—I need another post to give due credit, but flipping through the anthology probably provides the best lessons in comics-making that any textbook could offer. It’s pleasantly humbling to write what you hope to be the book for teaching comics and see it instantly overshowed by its own second half.

If you’re interested in a copy, the Bloomsbury site offers slightly lower prices (including a PDF) than at Amazon (though Amazon is worth a glance for the preview of the first 33 pages). If you’re thinking you might want to teach from it, the Bloomsbury site also lets you “Request exam/desk copy.” Also, if you’re interested in writing a book review, email: AcademicReviewUS@Bloomsbury.com (if you’re in North America) or AcademicReviews@Bloomsbury.com (if you’re anywhere else on the planet) to request a review copy.

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