Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some Controversial Ramblings and a Pretty Decent Book on Drawing

I'll warn you in advance: this post contains a lot of personal opinions about a subject that's very sensitive to many, many people:

comic books.

So read at your own risk, and please don't feel the need to e-mail me and tell me what an ignorant idiot I am and how wrong my opinions are. Because I never claimed otherwise...

When I was a kid, I never really got into superhero comics, or drawing, for that matter, so I never picked up the instructional book "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way." I've always heard people talk about what a great book it was, and I was always curious, but I never picked it up. I put it on my "Amazon Wish List" years ago, and lo and behold, somebody bought it for me for Christmas this year.

I sat down and read it immediately. It turns out, everybody was right - it's a pretty interesting read. Especially if you're just starting out as an artist, this book could be a really helpful resource (and that's who its intended for, after all).

I never found the drawings in superhero comics very appealing, or expressive (for the most part), and I think that's why I was more interested in Disney and Warner Brothers comics when I was a kid. This page explains a big part of why that's the case: according to this book, superheroes are always drawn eight heads tall. I never really realized that before (told you I was an idiot).

The fact that the heads become so small in relation to the body definitely makes them seem less expressive, and, just as a matter of personal taste, I always think that slightly bigger heads and facial features always make for a more appealing design. But obviously comic books have their emphasis on other areas, and acting and appeal are not always their top priority - it seems to me that realism and dynamic drawing are more important in superhero comic books, all the better to make their dramatic storytelling stronger.

Instead of superhero comics, I read a lot of "Tintin" when I was a kid...Herge's characters always seem about 6-7 heads high, which is about how I find I usually draw figures. I just find those proportions appealing. It's a personal taste thing.

I always liked the clean, simple way Herge drew the world. It has a certain realism (without too much cluttered detail) because he was great with layout and perspective and clearly did a lot of research.

I think his style hits a good balance: the characters are caricatured enough to be appealing and expressive, and the world is drawn realistically enough to make the action and danger seem dramatic and exciting. Again, that's just my taste.

When I was a kid they also carried comics like "Asterix" at my local bookstore. I liked the backgrounds, I found the characters to be appealing looking and I really appreciated the draftsmanship of the whole thing, but I could never get that into it (many of the characters seem to be in the 3-5 heads tall range and maybe I have a weird obsession where I only like them in the 6-7 head range unless they're ducks or other anthropomorphic animals!). Also, I'm not a big fan of the "giant nose" school of cartooning. Probably, more than anything, it was the writing and the stories that turned me off. I couldn't stand all the constant puns and wordplay (I find that stuff tedious, not really character specific as writing, and it seems to me that that kind of stuff always slows down the story - again, a personal taste thing) and it's also hard to root for a group of guys who can whip up a magical potion to get out of any jam. I usually felt more sympathy for the hapless soldiers and pirates they beat up on their adventures than I did for Asterix and Obelix.

Really love the way those guys draw horses. Great proportions!

I don't really have a point in writing all of this, and I especially don't want to sound like I don't appreciate how amazing DC and Marvel artists were (or Goscinny or Underzo or any other comic artist). For some reason I just never really got into the DC or Marvel comics, but I was never sure why. After all, most of the people I have known who in my life who were artists and in my age group loved comics. So over the years, I've felt guilty and ashamed for not liking superhero comics, or like I was missing out on something that everybody else loved because I was too stupid to get it.

The closest I came to get into traditional comics was that I went through a period in my high school and college years where I was really into Will Eisner's stuff. Also, around that time, the graphic novels "The Dark Knight" and "Electra: Assassin" came out and totally blew my mind. Both of them seemed to transcend the comic form and reading both of them is like reading a great novel and watching a fantastic movie rolled into one.

Anyway, here's another cool spread from "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way". The page on the right shows a drawing of each pose, and then, next to it is the same pose, drawn more dynamically.

The book devotes a good amount of space to drawing pretty girls which is always a tricky proposition. This is a good page describing some "do's and dont's" of drawing women's faces.

The book was written in the 70's by Stan Lee, who is pretty notorious for his cheesy writing style...but the book doesn't suffer for it. Everything is clear and well-explained.

Mostly, the emphasis of the book is on (as you might guess) drawing figures, using perspective and foreshortening, staging things in a dynamic way and the proper way to use pens, ink and brushes (it hasn't been updated since 1978). If you're one of those people (like me) who is always on the lookout for a good basic drawing book, or you know a young person that wants to learn how to draw in a comic book style or just wants to learn more about drawing, it's a pretty good investment at just $12.00 on Amazon.


Anonymous said...

Like you I'm not a huge fan of the Marvel/DC stuff I always found redundant and cliché. The Dark Horse/Vertigo is way better story wise and has various design styles the others lack.

But thumbs up for the Belgian comic book artists, that can sometimes fall into the same trap, but whose artistry is so unique.


Papageiena said...

Thank you thank you thank you. I'm a massive geek, but the extent of my knowledge of the Marvel/DC universes is what I've learned from the movies, TV shows, and cartoon pisstakes. The newspaper comics were my favorites, particularly Calvin and Hobbes, Zits, and the Boondocks.

TheZealot said...

I'd have to agree. It's a beginner's book. A good start, but not for someone who's striving for appeal, or looking for simplistic expressivity (is that a word?).
It "gets the job done". I was always attracted to Warner Bros. myself.

Stephen Worth said...

I was never a big fan of superhero comics either, but I've come to love Jack Cole's Plastic Man. When I was a kid, I liked Hot Stuff because it was drawn nice, but I never read the stories very carefully. The same went for most funny animal comics. The only comics where the stories interested me was horror comics. The EC Tales from the Crypt and Strange Science comics are fantastic to read and because of the drawings. It helped that EC had Kurtzman and Davis and all those great Mad guys working on them.

Rosenbaum said...

Goscinny also wrote the comic Lucky Luke. Morris, the artist of that comic, really hated all the wordplay and puns. So the writing style for Lucky Luke was a lot more based on slapstick humor. It also often had great "camera" work. If you haven't already, you should check it out.

Sam Nielson said...

My art was born and raised on comic books and "How To Draw the Marvel Way." I think I'd recommend it to any beginning artist, but not without pairing it with another non-Marvel-centered how-to book. It was the lone gospel to me as a young teenager and despite the good things it taught I'm still trying to break out of the standardized way of doing things it hammered into my head.

Robert said...

To be fair, it does have "the Marvel Way" warning in the title.

Toni Moon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Toni Moon said...

I actually think "the Marvel Way" is one of the reasons I got into animation in the first place! A must have for any artist! Great recommendation!

Max said...

I dont see what you think people will find offensive about this...You are obviously not "attacking" the marvel and dc style of drawing. It seems to me that you just never found it appealing. I have been a fan of Tin Tin as well as Marvel and DC comics for most of my life as well as manga. Does that make me some kind of weird hybrid comic fan? I hope not, I just love the medium of sequential art and if it is done well i will like it. There is nothing one can gain from choosing sides...comics are comics. Having said that, I believe most mainstream comics today are really quite terrible.

Mack said...

I share the same views. Liked your blog very much.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for the comments!

K - yeah, I'm a big fan of the Belgian comic artists, also Franquin, Moebius and Mezieres(french?) and Bernet (Spanish?). Also, good point - I've also enjoyed several dark horse comics.

Papageiena - You're welcome! Good to hear from someone who feels the same way I do.

Zealot - yeah, it's a good beginner's book, there aren't many books that cover things like appeal, that's for sure. But still I think the Marvel one covers some good territory well.

Stephen - Cole's Plastic Man is great, I've seen that stuff. I like the EC comics too, especially the Piracy Jack Davis stuff.

Rosenbaum - yeah, I have a few Lucky Lukes and I like them. I like his characters and the way he draws horses and his simple appealing layouts. Also, yeah, I think the writing is better.

Sam - yeah, I would never recommend just one book on drawing...the Preston Blair book is probably a good companion to the Marvel one.

Robert - ha!

Toni - great, thanks for the post!

Max - well, as you know, there are people on the internet have trouble distinguishing "opinion" from "fact". And also when I use words like "appeal" that word means different things to different is hard to talk about art and drawing without encountering passionate opinions and those are arguments that can't be "won". So I always try to cut off those arguments before they start, for my own sanity.

Mack - thanks for the comment!

Pirate Trish said...

I found this post a lot of fun to read, I grew up on a lot of different comics than my brother who loved superheros where I gravitated to Asterix, Tintin, the Donald Duck comics etc. My one concession to superheros beyond enjoying my bro telling me about them was Captain Carrot.

BUT! As an aside as a total entheusiast - I'm not surprised you find such delight in Herge's backgrounds since he would even go as far as to build scale models of environments like the spaceship to keep it cohesive.

How to tell you are on a totally different publishing timeline!

Floyd Norman said...

Good stuff, Mark.

At one time I was a member of Disney's thriving comic strip department, and I have fond memories of those days.

Alas, we weren't "killed" by CGI, but by the forces of the market. I think there are a lot of people out there who still love Disney comics, but for now they're only being kept alive in Europe.

Jett said...

I was gifted this book when I was in 9th grade and it completely rocketed me forward. Until then I was self taught with a lot of trial and error but after reading it and implementing what I had learned, all my friends commented on how fast I was improving.
I've since recommended it to kids who want to improve their drawing but aren't really interested in comics and they've been really enthusiastic.

Interesting reading your perspective on it since you weren't influenced by it.

Jett said...

Oh, I need to ad that along with that book I discovered Eisner and Bridgmen at the library and was constantly checking them out.

Ed Choy Moorman said...

Before I say anything else, I should say that I have major respect for you and great thanks for everything you've shared on this blog.

You said, "Both of them seemed to transcend the comic form and reading both of them is like reading a great novel and watching a fantastic movie rolled into one."

I only note it because it's something I've heard a lot. Both Maus and Persepolis were said to have "transcended the form" by some reviewers and one said that Persepolis "can't really be called a comic book" for this reason.

My question is, the best compliment you can bestow upon a comic book is that it's so good that it's better than a comic book? Would you say that To Kill a Mockingbird is so good it's transcended the novel form? Or the same of Citizen Kane and movies?

Marcos Mateu said...

Great post, and I think you make a lot of sense in many things. I also grew up reading Tintin (and Asterix although not so much for exactly the same reasons you talk about). There was something about Tintin as well that was more mature and serious, and more pure adventure geared that made it very appealing to me. Also, Tintin seem to be more universal, I always thought if you were not french or knew french culture well you might walk away having understood about half of the whole thing. I never got into the superhero thing much myself, always reading more the european authors (Giraud, Palacios, De La Fuente, Hugo Pratt...) there seemed to be a lot more character development there and more variety within the overall line of the stories.
One thing I would mention is that smaller heads might not necessarily make a character less expressive although it might make it more distant and unapproachable (big fellow, scary type...), but not necessarily less expressive, and used in contrast with 'bigger head' types might work well within a story.
Again, great post indeed!.

mark kennedy said...

Trish - that makes a lot of sense! Herge's stuff feels so solid, I find it easy to believe he would do that.

Floyd- yes, that's true, there's a great thriving market for the Disney comics overseas. I sure loved them when I was a kid and they still published them here.

Jett - glad you found the book at the right age! Those other books are great too, they had an influence on me as a young artist too.

Ed - when I said they "transcended" comic books, I wasn't saying "they are superior to comic books". What I meant is that, among other things, they incorporated the visual language of movies and other artistic areas which I had never seen before, and I found very inspiring. I am glad you enjoy the blog.

Marcos - thanks for the comment!

Jack G. said...

Also, I'm not a big fan of the "giant nose" school of cartooning. Probably, more than anything, it was the writing and the stories that turned me off. I couldn't stand all the constant puns and wordplay (I find that stuff tedious, not really character specific as writing,,

Awww, I love big noses! And I like characters to be even fewer heads high.

I definately like things to be goofy and story is usually secondary to the humor. I don't watch the Marx Brothers for the story!

But I'm not offended in the least.

billburgnyc said...

I was looking at Vol. 2 of the "Art of Herge" series this weekend and thought of this post.

I've read that Herge often asked his assistants to assume a pose and sketched them from life. The book provides many examples of this, comparing the sketches to the poses they inspired in the final comic.

Even though Herge drew the heads on these sketches as cartoon characters, I could tell they were drawn from life. Underneath the cartoon heads of Tintin or Captain Haddock, I could somehow "see" the image of the real person, in the same way one can usually detect the real actor underneath rotoscope.

But the final comic panels show no trace of a model or reference. At first I couldn't figure out why, then I remembered this post and I could see it. Herge changed the head size in the final drawings! The heads and hands are much larger than in reality, and somehow seem much more natural for it-- not like drawings of real people wearing cartoon masks.

Mark, I don't often comment but I cherish every post on this blog. Congrats on your fourth anniversary.

Anonymous said...

Stan Lee only wrote the "patter" for How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way, the actual lessons were created by penciller John Buscema for some drawing classes he gave at a New York college in the 70s. It was Stan's idea to complie the course into a book, add some snappy captions and market it to the masses.

Blake Himsl Hunter said...

I remember getting that book as a kid and devoured it. I still flash back to it when doing an action scene or the rare storyboard.

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