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Book Review: 'The Education of a Comics Artist'

The Animation Pimp delves into our fear and denial of death and festival acceptance.

Going to Comic-Con this year? You might just meet a few of the people who have contributed to this book. Cant miss, actually, there are 60 of the top artists, critics, and educators in the comics genre who have written the essays that make up this book, and there arent all that many comic artists out there.

Well, yes, there are. Comics are being written and drawn by thousands of young people all over the world, and some of them will wind up making a living at it. Thats a point that is made by more than one writer here, telling how they got their start. They drew. And drew, and drew and drew. They made copies and gave them to their friends, they created a fan base, they got better at it and a few got actually published. They got criticized, sneered at and threatened, but they kept on. People who get the comics bug dont stop.

The Education of a Comics Artist by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller isnt a how-to book. This book covers the history of the genre, personal narratives, tips on how to survive commercially and a lot of graphic design advice. All of it is readable, most of it entertainingly so, and many chapters you will go back and read time and time again. This is like sitting in on a symposium of some of the great comics minds and, for once, getting something out of it you will remember.

We All Want to Draw Comics

Everybody has their favorite comic, and, admit it, we all wanted to draw them ourselves. We no longer have to pretend that the idea is déclassé. Comics have been the inspiration for movies and TV series, both live action and animated. As Steven Heller says in his introduction, The Most Popular Course in Art School, Such is the superiority of the field that while misfits are still drawn to art-school comics classes, they are no longer perceived as pitiful outcasts.

There are many comics art genres and Heller speaks of the, comics language(s), which are used not only in editorial cartoons, but in childrens books, propaganda posters, book jackets and CD covers, to name only a few. Heller states that the idea of the book is to plant seeds of knowledge, to open artists to a large range of possibilities. This book is aimed at those young and old who believe that comics is a calling those who truly think outside the panel .

Comics Cover a Wide Field

Historically, comic art as we know it dates back to the 18th century, and was dubbed the cartoon by Punch in 1831. It has thrived in many forms, from The New Yorkers wit to Mad magazinesribald humor to The Realists subversive inspiration. Michael Dooley says in his introduction (yes, there are two of them and dont skip them), At least as far back as cartoonist turned animator Winsor McCay, comics creators have explored and enriched a wide variety of related disciplines, including concept art and storyboards for films and more recently, design for motion graphics. So for those of you who dont get syndicated, there are other jobs.

Highlights and Quotes

This book has so much good advice in it that to try to summarize it would be ridiculous. Here are some highlights and a few quotes, but there is much more, so read the book. The first section titled, Magazine Cartoons starts with Bob Mankoff telling how The New Yorker selects its cartoons. It then takes a nostalgic look at New Yorks newspaper and magazine cartoonist scene by R.C. Harvey, with some historical tidbits including how the artists sold the single panels by making the rounds of offices in person. He talks about the discipline that is required and how much paperwork is required to be a successful freelancer.

Paul Krassner, publisher of The Realist quotes Malcolm Muggeridge as saying, Laughter, in fact, is the most effective of all subversive conspiracies, and it operates on our side. He also makes a reference to censorship, as when one of his cartoons was rejected because the publishers mother objected to it. Read this chapter to find out about the poster that Disney didnt sue over.

The next section is called Editorial Cartoons, where Ben Sargent says, The editorial cartoon rides straight to the readers subconscious and editorial cartoons are journalism and are bound by the ethical expectations of the profession. He later says the craft is for people with passionate convictions, a naturally satiric take on life, an analytical turn of mind, and a creative imagination. And, oh yeah it helps if you can draw. Tony Auth does a Q & A session on how he does his job and what makes him an effective political cartoonist and Steve Brodner talks about the changing fashions in graphic design.

The Origin of the Political Cartoon

In Political Comics, Paul Buble traces the origins of political cartoons all the way back to Hieronymus Bosch, progressing to The WWIs Mr. Block and on up to WW3 Illustrated and beyond and comments on attempts at suppression. Speaking of WW3 Illustrated, its originator Peter Kuper talks about how that magazine came about, its distribution, and how Mad magazine inspired him. He says, Creating social commentary is one thing, getting it to an audience is a whole other story. David Rees talks about how the Internet is his distribution venue and has one of the best quotes in the book: I want to surround my criticisms with facts so people dont think Im just being an asshole.

In Comic Strips, Stan Mack talks about how he produced his strip, doing all the actual drawing at the last minute. Mark Alan Stamaty talks about how he reluctantly got into political cartooning, and Bill Griffith talks about, of course, Zippy. Then Nicole Hollander talks about Sylvia, and how she gets inspiration from detective novels and film noir.

Kids and Teens Comics has an article on Katie Keene by Teal Triggs describing one of the first comics to encourage ideas from fans. Jessica Abel says read and analyze Archie, and Barbara McClintock says she spent hours drawing her own comics based on Top Cat.

In Action/Adventure Comic, Arlen Schumer traces the best artists back to Kirby and Adams, and Jim Steranko laments about how rigid the comics had become, so he decided the first rule of comics is that there are no rules. Barron Storey discusses his philosophy behind his comics. Bill Sienkiewicz says about the work of other artists, Its a Zen thing Study it. Copy it. Learn from it Then: Let it go. Dave McKean uses photos to expand the scope of his comics. David Mack says he starts his comic making experience as a writer, and that Kabuki is very autobiographical.

Quirky, Subversive

Monte Beauchamp says in the section Alternative Comics, that the encouragement of a friend helped him go on when he had given up the idea of art. Gary Panter uses his character Jimbo to observe the places he is put in, and says dont expect to make a living from comics. To David Sandlin, who grew up in Belfast, comics were the real America action, optimism, shtick... It was quirky, subversive, and smart-ass not afraid to get down and dirty with popular culture. Peter Blegvad talks about the birth of Leviathan, and Mark Newgarden talks about the conventions used in comics.

Then in Graphic Novels, Chip Kidd describes his career as a designer, and Chris Ware gets into his education and inspirations. Art Spiegelmans section is a moving account of how he feels about his strip In the Shadow of No Towers. Marjane Satrapi studied art in her native Iran, and draws on her experiences there for Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Kim Deitch writes about how Boulevard of Broken Dreams came about and says: if no one will publish you, publish yourself. Rick Geary applies his detailed style to classic literature. Ho Che Andersons opinion is that comics are for control freaks, where you can play God.

There is the section called Miscellany, where Leonard Rifas recommends doing educational comics, and Tom Spurgeon talks about mini-comics. Dan Nadel talks about the liberating atmosphere of Fort Thunder (thats a place, not a title) where many artists started. Bart Beaty observes that Europe takes comics more seriously than the U.S., and Bill Randalls essay is on manga.

A Drawn Interview

In Comics in Art and Illustration, Elwood Smith drew his interview, a delightful idea that more of the artists might have done. Robert Williams says his three biggest influences are probably Salvador Dali, Wallace Wood and Von Dutch (remember those great hot rods?). Education Illustrated has panels drawn by Dan James, Nicholas Blechman, David Heatley and Rick Meyerowitz four wildly different styles of art.

Then we go to The Business of Comics where Heidi MacDonald advises on how to use the Cons to advance your career. M. Todd Hignite feels that comics are now moving into being a pure art form and Eric Reynolds thinks that there is a definite shift away from comicbooks and towards graphic novels.

In The Creation of Comics, Craig Yoe illustrates his essay with drawings of a few of his favorite artists and says to study the work of the great cartooning draftsmen. Colin Berry talks about graffiti artists. Dennis ONeil says, Remember the mantra: There is seldom one absolute, inarguable, unimpeachably right way to do anything. Tim Kreider says that drawing in comics doesnt necessarily mean naturalistic rendering, and Robert Fiores essay is on how to get away with being controversial. Ward Sutton makes some good points about getting contradictions into your character and Trina Robbins addresses the changes that females have undergone in comics. They are no longer good little girls.

Some Education Advice

In the section Teaching Comics, Scott McCloud gives arguments for both a broad liberal arts education and specialized art schools, and Joe Kubert tells what he looks for in accepting students to his school. Roger Sabin talks about the art school experiences of several students while Will Eisner talks about how he teaches, and drew a panel that shows pretty much what can happen to an artist on deadline.

In Lesson Plans, Ted Stearn gives six basics that should be stressed and James Sturm says the simplicity of a cartoon image too often belies the labor of its construction, Matt Madden illustrates experimental comics with a panel that can be read right side up or upside down. Rich Kreiner wraps up the essays with a historical perspective on the comics art form.


A section called resources lists comics related websites you can reference. Short biographies of all the contributors are at the end of the book and it would have been nice to have websites attached to those, too, but thats a minor caveat. Some of the essays are funny, some are a bit dry, but all of them will give you some piece of information or philosophy that you can use in your life and career. The drawings are a joy to look at. This is a must have book for your library (especially if you are just starting out), whether you are a comics artist, fan, animator, illustrator or all those other art labels that get arbitrarily hung on people who draw.

Artists web sites can be read at New/Allworth/Illustration/Education of a Comics Aritst/catalog page/URL resource PDF.

The Education of a Comics Artist edited by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller. New York, N.Y.: Allworth Press, 2005. 256 pages. paperback, ISBN 1-58115-408-9 ($19.95).

Libby Reed started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beauty as a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children, (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Electronic Arts) and four grandchildren.