NEW HOW-TO

NEW HOW-TO
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Watson-Guptill


Reviewed by Marc Mason

I’m not one for hyperbole; just the opposite, really. So when I make a statement like “THE DC COMICS GUIDE TO CREATING COMICS: INSIDE THE ART OF VISUAL STORYTELLING is the best how-to book I’ve seen in the past five years,” you can trust me on it.

This is the book that should be supplied to every wannabe comics artist, and they shouldn’t be given work until they demonstrate that they understand what’s being said in these pages.

Veteran writer/editor/artist/mentor Carl Potts steps into the author’s chair here, and what he produces is a masterwork on how to tell a story through sequential art. He covers panel structure, creating a sense of place, producing movement on the page, how to get the reader to fill in information the artist doesn’t, transitions on the page, juxtaposition, how to write for narrative storytelling, and much more, creating a comprehensive course in making great comics. Why listen to Potts? Well, the man served as mentor for both Jim Lee and Mike Mignola in their early careers, and those guys have done well beyond “okay.”

The sample art that accompanies the text is extremely effective in illustrating the points Potts is trying to get across, and seeing practical examples of his concepts only enhances the learning objectives the book is trying to get across. Folks, if you’re looking for the perfect holiday gift for that young artist in your life, this is the one.

If you have someone who prefers manga instead, Camilla D’Errico and Stephen W. Martin’s POP MANGA: HOW TO DRAW THE COOLEST, CUTEST CHARACTERS, ANIMALS, MASCOTS, AND MORE would fit that bill nicely. Unlike a lot of how-to manga books, this one is actively produced by a working manga artist in D’Errico, and that makes a huge difference. Her approach has some slight differences to it, and the book also steers away from some of the sexism and fan service nonsense you’ll come across in those other books.

The text here is simple and direct, and it has a way of making the concepts seem simple enough that anyone can do what is being talked about. You want practicality in a how-to book, and this one delivers; the basics must be mastered before moving forward, and you definitely get a sense of just how important that is as you read. Terrific stuff.

If all how-to books were as good as these, my job would be much, much easier.


NEW HOW-TO

NEW HOW-TO
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Watson-Guptill


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Over the last few years, I’ve seen and reviewed dozens of how-to books, and to say that they have been a mixed bag would be understating it. For any number of reasons, this is a tricky genre to get right. So it was with some wariness that I sat down with two new entries in the genre.

However, I was more than pleasantly surprised by HOW TO BECOME A VIDEO GAME ARTIST by Sam R. Kennedy. A veteran artist who has worked on a number of games, the book immediately starts with a high level of authority and it never waivers. This is because Kennedy does any number of things right along the way. He shares how he got started in the industry, he emphasizes the fundamental skills that one needs in order to even consider the career, and then he breaks it down into small component pieces. The book discusses six different types of jobs that a video game artist might work, discusses the training and education you would need in order to qualify for that job, introduces the reader to a current professional in the field, and offers up a job description you might see for the gig and what your resume and portfolio should include in order to be considered for the position. In short: Kennedy offers an unusually comprehensive look at the industry he works in and with that he has produced a how-to book of unusually high quality. Anyone picking this up should be able to use it for its intended purpose and come out smarter along the way.

The same cannot be said for STAN LEE’S HOW TO DRAW SUPERHEROES, unfortunately. The book is produced nicely enough, an attractive package for the shelf. But the content is hit and miss. The basic stuff on creating a hero is executed well enough, but the chapter on creating heroines is downright awful, encouraging “brokeback” anatomy on women who seem to be lacking ribs and some internal organs. (Not to mention that the real comicbook examples used aren’t much better.) But the real problem is that the development examples are far too simplistic. Take the section on developing a “brute” character. The book gives you a single page of development, and that glosses over a lot of real work that needs to be done to make things right. This is common throughout the book, this surface-level look at drawing. But maybe more egregious is that the guys who did the real bulk of the work here (hint: Stan Lee didn’t write this 200+ page book by himself) get the tiniest of credit on an interior page. Danny Fingeroth, Keith Dallas, and Robert Sodaro deserve a bit more notice, as do the artists who did the internal work. But they are all relegated to the fine print. Unfortunate.


ROSS-SOLARSKI

ROSS/VIDEO GAME ART
Written, Drawn, and Edited by Various
Published by Various


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Comics and graphic novels have never looked better than they do these days. Thanks to better printing, a wider variety of colors, and more talented artists having interest in joining the field, we are in something of a renaissance age when it comes to ye olde funny books.

Mind you, this doesn’t always mean that the stories are better or that the storytelling is better. Just that the final product has a polish and a visual verve that old newsprint comics never had a chance to deliver. However, these older comics did have giants like Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert drawing them, and frankly, there aren’t a lot of talents in the business these days who aren’t just building off of what the legends started.

I was thinking about this stuff as a couple of new books crossed my desk for review. The first one was the paperback edition of ROUGH JUSTICE: THE DC COMICS SKETCHES OF ALEX ROSS (Pantheon). Ross is really the true patron saint of the painted comics movement, a man who took a niche area of comics art and exploded it into an astonishing mainstream popularity. His breakout success was MARVELS, but far more of his work has come from DC, including KINGDOM COME, JUSTICE, and an enormous number of covers. Thus, in this book, you get precisely what I was discussing above: a book that could not have really existed until now. We needed better printing, more colors, better paper in order to show of Ross’ talents to their fullest potential. The book itself does an excellent job if diving into Ross’ artistic process, showing everything from layouts, test sketches, and finished product. You also discover – and see from the artist’s own words – the influences on his work that the legends had. The book and its material are a fascinating mixture of homage and honest-to-god coolness. Definitely a potential holiday gift for the sophisticated fan in your life.

But I was far more surprised as I read through DRAWING BASICS AND VIDEO GAME ART by Chris Solarski (Watson-Guptill). I almost have difficulty categorizing this book; on one hand, it is very much a “how-to” volume, showing the reader how to master basic, classic art techniques, while on the other hand it reads like something of a plea. Solarski is fighting a battle here, trying to prove to the world that video games are an art form unto themselves and should be treated and respected as such. Not always an easy fight; a couple of years ago, film critic Roger Ebert picked a fight on the internet by saying that they weren’t art and incurred the wrath of ten thousand fanboys. Solarski’s methodology here is to show us the artistic techniques that every artist should know, and then he transposes them to the realm of video games to show how they should be used to create a far more artful gaming experience. For the most part, he’s successful in using logic and trying to make his point with examples. Will that convince the naysayers? Who knows? But if I were an artist planning to do video game work, I’d have a copy of this on my shelf.

Two books that approach the beauty of modern comic and video game art from very different directions. What’s your take?


STAN LEES HOW TO WRITE COMICS

STAN LEE’S HOW TO WRITE COMICS
Written by Stan Lee and Bob Greenberger
Published by Watson-Guptill


Reviewed by Marc Mason

Sometimes you can just look at a book and say “Yep- that’s going to be a massively popular Christmas gift,” and this is one of those times. STAN LEE’S HOW TO WRITE COMICS benefits from having a huge name behind it, some excellent production design, and some good advice that people can use, making it an easy winner for someone looking to buy something cool for a young writer this holiday season.

When the book is at its best is when it is truly focusing on the mechanics of story structure and script writing. The discussion of writing in the classic Marvel plot-first style versus doing full script is excellent, and the examples the book gives do a nice job of showing precisely how things work. The material on character creation is also handled really well- things like motivation can occasionally get lost by writers who more focused on making something “kewl” to stand out for readers. The book offers up a nice reminder that you have to take care of the basics first before you can start adding flourishes. There’s also a large chunk of the book that focuses on actual storytelling that contains a number of concepts that young writers need to know about. All of this material is essential, and the book does an outstanding job in how it presents it to readers.

Some of the material in the book is extraneous and not really compelling, though. The section on comics history is unneeded, and covering genres didn’t really do a whole lot for the book, either. But overall, those are minor quibbles. Ultimately, this is an attractive package, and one that has a hungry audience waiting to read it.

MISC. NEW STUFF

MISC. NEW BOOKS
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Various

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Look! New stuff from various folks and places. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Starting with MERMIN #5 (Tragic Planet) is always a good idea, as I’ve been enjoying Joey Weiser’s nifty minicomic from the beginning. The story of a young boy from an undersea kingdom and his attempt to join human society has worked from the start, mixing humor and pathos in perfect amounts. This final issue of volume one finds the stakes at their highest, as bad guys from Mermin’s home have come to drag him back, and it has placed his human friends in danger. There’s a surprising amount of action this time around, and it has a shocking amount of scale to it- I wasn’t even truly sure that all of the human cast would actually survive. But all that really does is show off just how good a cartoonist Joey Weiser really is. In five minicomics he has shown a massive amount of variety in what he can bring to the page, and as a result, he’s delivered a book that I suspect will soon be collected under one cover and be a smashing sales success to the all-ages crowd. I know I’ll want one.

Speaking of good all-ages books, FRAGGLE ROCK VOL. 2 #1-2 from Archaia fits that description well. This miniseries brings to life another classic Jim Henson creation, reminding us that he didn’t peak solely with THE MUPPETS. These characters have a wonderful life and charm of their own, and the variety of talent writing these tales has done a good job of creating interesting stories that captivate the reader, as well as providing an interesting “moral” at the end that evokes what the TV series was all about. Whether it’s about the importance of embracing your own dreams, or understanding that friends and family are more important than potential fame and fortune, these pieces just work. The artists do their job well, too, and it was quite easy to sit back and enjoy just how pretty the whole shebang looks. Fun for everybody.

Shifting the focus to the topic of actually making comics, EXTREME PERSPECTIVE FOR ARTISTS (Watson-Guptill) by David Chelsea is a stunning how-to book, though I have to warn you in advance- this one is for advance level artists only. Done in graphic novel format, Chelsea takes you through chapters how to truly take your work to the next level. Topics include “Extra Vanishing Points”, “Fisheye Perspective”, “Cylindrical Perspective”, “Reflections”, and many others, and he uses comics panels to demonstrate how they look first, then he lays out a drawing lesson that allows the reader to test these techniques on their own. The book also comes with a DVD that includes a perspective grid and guides you through attempting the material he’s talking about. Chelsea is impressively thorough, and if I had an ounce of artistic talent, I have no doubt I’d use this book heavily.




STAN LEE’S HOW TO DRAW COMICS

STAN LEE’S HOW TO DRAW COMICS
Written by Stan Lee and David Campiti and Drawn by Various
Published by Watson-Guptill
In Conjunction with Dynamite Entertainment

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Most of the how-to books I’ve been sent for review lately have been manga-focused, so it was a breath of fresh air to see one devoted to the art of superheroics pop up in my mailbox. Then I saw the title and had a bit of concern- Stan the Man writes comics, not draws. How well would the book translate his knowledge of storytelling techniques so that a young artist could use the book for practical knowledge? Also, with more than a few disputes between Lee and some of his early collaborators publicly known, how would he handle discussing their contributions to his success?

The answer: pretty well on both accounts.

What stuck out to me about this book is that it takes a different approach to how-to than I have seen recently. Very little time is spent on talking about the tools artists use; instead, the book dives right into technique. The first lengthy chapter covers concepts like perspective and foreshortening, and it isn’t until after that where the book actually covers drawing anatomy and action. The idea, I think, is the remind artists that fights are only a small part of being a good artist. Flow, movement, and storytelling matter most.

Later chapters cover backgrounds, layouts, and the book even dives into lettering and coloring. There’s even a small section on preparing a portfolio as well as a list of suggested reads and schools that offer comics art training. In short, if you or someone you know are considering becoming a comics artist, having a copy of this book on hand is a pretty good idea.

MANGA FOR THE BEGINNER SHOUJO

MANGA FOR THE BEGINNER: SHOUJO
Written and Drawn by Christopher Hart
Published by Watson-Guptill

Reviewed by Marc Mason

While the past couple of years have seen a decline in the overall sales of manga, interest in the form still runs high, particularly in the teen girl set. (Mine still loves it immensely and continues to work on drawing her own.) So I don’t have any trouble imagining that there’s a receptive market out there for books like this one.

I think it’s probably fair to say that Christopher Hart is the most prolific producer of hot-to books related to comics art, and I’ve had the opportunity to see a great many of them cross my desk. The quality has varied, as Hart’s own talents aren’t always well-suited to certain subject matters. However, SHOUJO seems to land right in Hart’s wheelhouse. This book offers up some very good advice and some effective ideas in how to create good characters.

The trick to a good manga, particularly a shoujo one, is in getting the characters’ ages and appearances right. For shoujo, the characters should be in the 13-17 range; developing as people, but not yet adults, thus not yet sexualized. The characters need to be attractive, but only in a cute way, and Hart does a good job here of emphasizing this. He also does provide examples of what the next age level up should look like, allowing the learner to see an example of what to avoid.

There is also some time spent on drawing characters performing basic activities, which is useful, but perhaps not as in-depth as it needs to be. Perhaps Hart is saving that material for a second edition meant for the intermediate manga-ka? Either way, for beginners, this serves as a reasonable and solid foundation.

CREATING ANIMATED CARTOONS WITH CHARACTER

CREATING ANIMATED CARTOONS WITH CHARACTER
Written by Joe Murray
Published by Watson-Guptill

Reviewed by Marc Mason

You could do a lot worse than have Joe Murray’s career. Murray was one of us: a nerd, a lover of the geek arts, but he is also one that stuck with it and put it to use. And what good use it was: Murray created ROCKO’S MODERN LIFE and CAMP LAZLO, two cartoons that were not only some of animation’s best for years running, but also Emmy winners. Most creators are lucky enough to strike gold even once. Murray… yeah, this guy has the touch.

You can do a lot worse than to have Joe Murray’s career. But you certainly can’t do much better.

But, hey! Murray is a nice enough chap that he’s at least willing to show you the ropes and explain how it’s done. CREATING ANIMATED CARTOONS WITH CHARACTER is an incredibly detailed and thorough look at the process of creating a cartoon. Murray starts off with working on the character and premise, carries you through the process of pitching it, how to go about producing a pilot, building your team of writers to do the regular show, and more. He even offers advice on how to deal with temptation, thoughts of selling out, and what happens if you realize you’re becoming an asshole.

Murray is also smart enough to not hog the book to himself. He also offers up a number of interviews with other folks that have successfully gone through the process of getting a show made and on the air and mines their experiences to help guide the reader, too.

I’ve read what feels like eight million “how to” books in the past couple of years, but not one of them was in this book’s league. I put down this book and felt smarter. I read passages that I knew I would refer back to in my own writing endeavors (even though they don’t involve animation). It is the most practical and useful book of its kind currently on the market.

You could do a lot worse than have Joe Murray’s career. But you can’t do much better than to buy and read Joe Murray’s book.

CARTOON CUTE ANIMALS

CARTOON CUTE ANIMALS
Written and Drawn by Christopher Hart
Published by Watson-Guptill

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Anthropomorphic animals have been a huge part of comics from almost the beginning. Indeed, such creatures not only litter the comics landscape, they also make up a majority of the classic cartoons (Bugs, Porky, etc.). Thus it makes good sense for a budding comics artist to know how to execute these creatures on the page; you never quite know where your career will take you or what opportunities might arise along the way.

CARTOON CUTE ANIMALS is the latest effort from Christopher Hart, another in a very lengthy series of How-To books designed to help the beginner artist master figure drawing for comics. His previous book, one on chibis, felt flat and uninspired, but this one is a return to better form.

Highlights here include: his descriptions of leg design affect what kind of character you’re creating; notes on whether or not the animal should have an overbite; and some nice work on body language. There are some lowlights; primarily, it feels a bit like he was stretching out the premise by throwing in as many animals as humanly possible and the book begins to feel repetitive by the time you reach the end.

Hart’s books aren’t going to be for everybody, and I think that it is clear in spots that once an artist gains enough experience that they might want to move on to more advanced materials. But for a younger artist, perhaps one in the junior high or early high school demo, books like this one could be crucial and helpful for development.

MANGA FOR BEGINNERS: CHIBIS

MANGA FOR THE BEGINNERS: CHIBIS
Written and Drawn by Christopher Hart
Published by Watson-Guptill

Reviewed by Marc Mason

More than traditional American comics, manga relies on artistic effect for emotion and action. Superman may grimace as he punches Darkseid, or Captain Marvel may grin widely as he subdues Dr. Sivana, but their bodies remain standard in their proportions. But in a manga, that would likely be different. Their heads might grow, or fists might swell in outsized fashion. Bodily proportions might shift in a bizarre manner. This type of character in a manga is called a chibi- large heads, massively expressive eyes, highly stylized. They work to make a moment… well, cuter.

And they take more effort than you might think to draw.

MANGA FOR BEGINNERS: CHIBIS takes you inside the process of drawing perfect chibis, whether they’re people, animals, places or any other number of concepts that might be a part of your story. This book also includes instruction on how to perfect the “movement” of these characters in-panel.

I’ve read a few of Hart’s books at this point, and while this one is solidly put together, it is a bit workmanlike in comparison to much of his other work. While the material here could very much be helpful and useful to a beginner artist, what you don’t find here is much in the way of enthusiasm or excitement for the subject matter. I didn’t get the sense of interest in this book that I felt from Hart in some of the others. CHIBIS feels… perfunctory.

As I said, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful or helpful. But it definitely lacks some of the polish and energy of other books like this that I’ve reviewed, and that prevents me from being able to fully endorse it.