“Self-taught” is an odd term.
In the art world, lack of an art degree tends to put you in the self-taught bucket. But I’m willing to bet that every artist would claim a teacher or few that helped shape their techniques or processes.
When I had my first comic published in my community college’s newspaper at 21, I knew I wanted to continue sharing stories with comics. And there were so many amazing artists I was in awe of, with as much excitement as I had for a master painter or literary genius. The way I felt when experiencing these works was the same, and I didn’t just want to make comics, I wanted fluency in the visual language, and I wanted to be great at making comics.
Thirteen years later and I can’t say I’m the greatest sequential artist, but I have gathered a lot of stellar resources on studying the craft. And I’m still studying comics as an art form, which I love as much as making new artwork.
Here are some of my most reached-for books on how to make and read comics, along with some other resource ideas.
These have been my teachers and I am so grateful for their work and sharing. Brace yourself because I’m about to nerd out real hard here.
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
I was way late to the game on this one. Understanding Comics (1993/2004) is at the top of most lists on how to read and write comics, yet I didn’t dip into it until about two years ago. I had a notion that it would be more geared toward Marvel/DC/Superhero-type comics, and while it can absolutely be applied to those, Scott McCloud’s breakdown encompasses all sequential art, even reaching to predict where the comic form could go in the future.
McCloud marries analytical tools and the sequential art form itself to literally illustrate his points. This book is meta. Literally literally meta!
2. How To Say Everything, Tom Hart
Oh, how I love Tom Hart. He is the only person on this list that has been my actual teacher (see next week’s post to learn how he can be yours too!) and I have learned so much about putting words and images together, as well as feeling like I have permission and acceptance in telling my stories with comics, in the place I am at, with the skills I have today.
Hart does these very kindnesses for the readers in this book, and offers many exercises to try what you’re learning in real time. He give insight on why we tell stories to begin with, the differences between drama and poetry in storytelling, and understanding how certain images move us.
How To Say Everything (2015) is one of those books that I carried around in my purse for a year after I bought it. It has so many dog-eared and post-noted pages, and some scribbled notes inside.
3. What It Is, Lynda Barry
Lynda Barry’s work speaks to my soul. Her Marlys comics are tender, hilarious, and devastating, told in the plain-spoken voices of children and teenagers. She does natural dialogue so well, and is a hell of a writer. She’s a heartbreaker.
What It Is (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008) was Barry’s first pivot from comic artist to creative guru. Beginning with her artist origin story, she offers questions as to the magic of words and images, where they come from, and how we can silence our inner critic to allow space for creativity.
This book in not only mind-blowing in its written content, it’s beautifully constructed of collage and brush painting on yellow legal paper. Like the creative journey, it is at once linear and labyrinthine.
4. Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Ivan Brunetti
The copy of Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice (Yale University Press, 2011) I own today is my third copy because I’ve given it away a couple of times. Its cover is warped because I kept it on my night table for a couple of years and used it as a coaster, and its littered with scraps of paper from times I brought it to dinner with my family or the bar with my husband and suggested we do some of the exercises together.
Brunetti is a teacher, and Cartooning is a course syllabus. To work through its lessons and exercises is to take a course on comics from a master of simple design and the good old-fashioned gag comic. Anyone can do the exercises in this book; I’ve done them with kids as young as 6. And everyone can learn from returning to it now and then.
Here’s a book trailer that gives a great summation. Go buy a copy for yourself and then give it away to a friend and buy yourself another one.
5. Picture This: How Pictures Work, Molly Bang
Picture This (1991/2000) was introduced to me by Tom Hart, in one of the working groups at The Sequential Artists Workshop. Molly Bang is an award-winning children’s illustrator; in Picture This, her preface explains how she came to study picture structure after her buddy, (Dr.) Leon Shiman (former fellow of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies), called her out and said, “You really don’t understand how pictures work, do you?” Ouch, Leon.
Bang explains how the elements of visual art affect our emotions. After reading Picture This, it’s impossible to unsee/unlearn its wisdom and apply it when making art.
6. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices From the Legendary Cartoonist, Will Eisner
This is the first book I ever picked up that spun me toward studying comics and sequential art. Eisner’s first publication of Comics and Sequential Art (1985/2008) broke down the fundamentals of the form nearly a decade prior to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
I can’t possibly do a proper Eisner bio in a paragraph. You should know that he brought the terms “sequential art” and “graphic novel” into the mainstream. He was a phenomenal artist, a School of Visual Arts professor, and the freaking Eisner Awards have been one of the industry’s highest honors in existence since 1988.
Comics and Sequential Art is required reading if you’re wanting to deepen your understanding of the medium. Just go get yourself a copy. Sheesh.
Next week: More Resources To Jump Into Making Comics: Helpful Humans