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The Arts

Drawing Blood

Lulu Eightball's Creator Sits Down With Instructional Tomes On How to Bring Comics to Life

Emily Flake

By Emily Flake | Posted 9/10/2008

I need to preface this by saying what some of you will already know: that comics-wise, I am a mere gag cartoonist, a doodler, a troller for jokes, and the territory we're about to explore here is Much Deeper Shit than the little patch of land I tend to myself. We'll be looking at three works--Will Eisner's instructional trilogy Comics and Sequential Art, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, and Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative, and Lynda Barry's What It Is, published recently, and Scott McCloud's 2006 Making Comics--that explore making comics. All three works are masterful, all are indispensable, and together they comprise a yin and yang of approaches to visual and narrative art, a whole that is of immeasurable use to the cartoonist in particular, but certainly useful to any person making creative endeavors. If you want to see farther, you could hardly pick a better set of giant's shoulders on which to stand.

I'll start with Will Eisner, as befits his legendary stature. Eisner, who died in 2005, is one of the earliest and brightest lights of the comics world. He's often credited with inventing the term "graphic novel" to describe his 1978 seminal work A Contract With God. He was a true master and, like the best of masters, had the skill to break his knowledge down for the student or colleague, as he did in his three comics textbooks. These books limn the entire practice of storytelling--Eisner was adamant that storytelling be paramount in any graphic treatment--of graphic representation from ideograms to symbols to picture-stories. They cover anatomy, expression, techniques of visual allusion, pacing, lettering, panel treatment. They are the very best kind of encyclopedia--hugely informative and wildly entertaining. Reading these books and looking at his work provokes a kind of swooning joy. Looking at Eisner's drawings makes the hands itch with desire to draw, too, like the irrepressible joy of singing along with your favorite song, even if your voice is turds in comparison. Not only do these books help you think about comics, they help you think about all kinds of visual art and narrative. That they also explore sequential art in the computer age is evidence of Eisner's unflagging curiosity and desire to know more, a quality as important to attaining mastership as skill and hard work.

Scott McCloud's Making Comics owes much to Eisner, as he admits readily and often in his work. He covers much of the same ground--technique, narrative, etc.--but it's ground worth covering many times over, and it's worth using as many guides as you can. Making Comics forms the third part of McCloud's own trilogy, along with 1993's brilliant Understanding Comics and 2000's Reinventing Comics. His approach in all three is to present the books in comic form, graphic textbooks, if you will.

His lively voice and his complete mastery of the form make it as entertaining and informative as the Eisner books, but lend it a chummier, more intimate tone. Where Eisner speaks with the easy authority of the master, McCloud is funny and self-deprecating despite his obvious virtuosity. Making Comics is loaded with discussions of technique, and each chapter is followed by exercises. While not, perhaps, as intoxicating a read as Eisner, McCloud offers a sense of enthusiasm and interest. Of particular note is his section on drawing emotions, a chapter that combines anatomy and psychology in a truly compelling and exciting way. Never would I have thought of pity being a mix of mild joy plus mild sadness, or cruelty as a mixture of anger and joy. It's an exciting thing, to run across a book that puts truly new ideas in your head, and like the Eisner books, McCloud's is a fantastic tool for artists and story tellers of all stripes.

McCloud and Eisner deliver the yang of it, the technical, the tools, the instructional. These books are clean and bright and cheerful, and they are concerned with your form, not your feelings. On the other end of this spectrum is Lynda Barry's What It Is, a book that couldn't care less about your technique, what pens you're using, or teaching you how to master two-point perspective. What It Is is informed by a workshop Barry teaches called Writing the Unthinkable, which I was lucky enough to attend years ago in Chicago. The book and the workshop provide you with keys, as opposed to tools, to unlocking creativity and finding your voice.

That sounds sort of twee and pandering, and this book is definitely not. Barry faces the things that take away your desire and ability to create, the fear, the ennui, the inhibitions. She makes you feel you are not alone in having these problems. If Eisner and McCloud are the wise grandfather and fun, smart uncle of the comics world, Barry is both the nurturing mother and the cool, tough older sister. What It Is is riotous in its construction, a visually stunning mix of collage, sketchbook, memoir, and painting. Barry devotes the first half of the book to describing her own artistic development, struggles, and philosophy, going back and forth between explorations of questions like "What is an image?" to describing the escape that drawing brought to her hardscrabble Northwestern upbringing.

What makes this part particularly great is Barry's insight and honesty. "Playing and fun are not the same thing," she says, talking about the darkness and intensity present in children's play, especially when that child is alone. That world you enter is the world you leave behind when you either stop drawing altogether or morph it into something different. Describing her professional life, she says: "For the next 30 years I chased after only good drawing. While I drew, my main feelings were doubt and worry, and when I finished my only feelings were relief and regret. I never drew for fun anymore--and I'd forgotten about that strange floating feeling making lines on paper used to give me." This is an astonishingly honest statement. Hearing it from one of my cartoon heroes made me nearly cry with relief. Even, it turns out, Lynda fucking Barry feels this way.

The second half of What It Is is an advice and activity book, a collage-form version of her workshop. It's a truly great creative tool for, again, any creative discipline, particularly useful for writing but indispensable in unlocking the story you want to tell, no matter how it wants to come out. Reading this book leaves you feeling wrung out and exhilarated, inspired and befriended. Eisner and McCloud wake up your hands and intellect. Barry wakes up your heart.

My own work is nothing so grand. It's a four-beat thesis accompanied by a doodle that I hope to make hilarious. I know when I hit it--and am even more aware on the far more frequent occasions when I do not--when it resonates like a tuning fork with a certain sense in me, a sense that knows its own in terms of characters and feeling and philosophy. It's not that easy to find; there is a lot of discordance and false leads and sitting and staring and doodling little chickens and old men and, God help me, the occasional flower and going down into that mine shaft and finding nothing, nothing, nothing. But these books, they fill me with joy and delight and purpose. That's a feeling worth chasing, in life, in work, in everything.

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More from Emily Flake

Lulu Eightball (8/4/2010)

Lulu Eightball (7/28/2010)

Lulu Eightball (7/21/2010)

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