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Pipeline, Issue #314

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Pipeline, Issue #314

BOOKS FOR CREATING COMICS

The best way to learn something is by doing it. The best way to learn to do something right is to have an additional resource to point out everything you foul up. That still leaves you with the trick of getting started. Whether you’re an apprentice to somebody else or just have a manual to follow, it’s always good to find a way to ease the learning curve. Thanks to Richard Starkings and John “JG” Roshell, wannabe comic book letterers now have their print guide to getting the job done. COMIC BOOK LETTERING THE COMICRAFT WAY is an excellent bare bones start to the world of computer lettering. It works as an introduction not just to the technical tips and tricks necessary to build word balloons and title fonts, but also some of the history and theory behind lettering.


Most of the stuff you’ll find in this book you can already read on-line. Between Comicraft’s own site and a small number of others, it’s not difficult to learn how to draw a caption box, or center your text in a balloon, or make letters jump out of a balloon. This book just offers the material in a more compact format with commentary on various techniques and plenty of examples. The simple two-page guide on font creation is the best resource for creating comic book lettering fonts yet. It barely covers the topic, but it stands out as a topic that nobody else wants to touch.

Starkings and Roshell use the book to educate the reader on the history of lettering and the design sense that’s necessary to lay out a page, sketch in titles, and appreciate the work that has come before. In one four-page section, Starkings walks you through some examples from a CONAN story that illustrate a variety of lettering techniques and theories. For example, we learn that balloons generally “float up” and hide behind speaking characters, when possible. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but many of them are industry standards that a letterer would do well to follow.

Using an original story by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen, Starkings and Roshell give step-by-step instructions on how to create such items as thought balloons, burst balloons, zig-zag tails, and more. These are simple and technical explanations. Most only take a couple of panels to explain. This isn’t to say, however, that they’re easy to master.

First rule of lettering: Bezier curves are a bitch. It only takes Comicraft a half-page to show how to create one of those zig-zag tails, but it takes forever to train yourself (through practice) to make them look even and uniform. In the end, that’s the best thing about this book. It shows you how to do some of the basics of computer lettering, so that you can go off and learn them yourself. You have the basic tools to put words and balloons where you want them. But you’ll need plenty of practice and experience to feel comfortable with them and to develop your own style.

The book design can be a little busy at times. The color dots on the backgrounds and at the margins can overpower the text on top of them at times, but for the most part stay out of the way. The instructional sections give just enough detail to get you on your way, but not enough to answer many of the questions that pop up. Comicraft is promising a message board sometime soon to help with that.

The biggest problem is that the coloring on the Busiek story tries so hard to look authentic to the spirit of the period it’s evoking that much of the lettering on those pages becomes unreadable.

The sections of the book flow together nicely. It moves nicely from background to history to concept and execution, with a coda about different typefaces and logo designs and the advanced stuff that a book of this nature couldn’t hope to cover.

The book is also completely Mac-centric. Examples are available from the book to download off the Comicraft web site, but they’re in Mac form. The tutorials are written with Mac commands. If you’re on a PC, you’ll have to be more familiar with Adobe Illustrator to understand everything, or you’ll be doing some extra translation work to get things working.

COMIC BOOK LETTERING THE COMICRAFT WAY is a great introduction for anyone interested in the craft. It’ll get your toes in the water. The rest is up to you and anything else you can scramble around to find on the internet.

Meanwhile, Avatar is covering the writing side of the process with ALAN MOORE’S WRITING FOR COMICS. This is 47 page essay (written 15 years ago) that’s rich in theory and mostly devoid of technical instruction. It’s instructive to new writers as a point of view completely different from your usual How To manuals. It is also disconcerting in how many of his complaints of comics in the 1980s can still be considered valid today.

The essays contained in the book are written from the perspective of an accomplished, but fairly young, writer. The Moore writing here spends a lot of time thinking about world building and thematic compositions. Plot is just the means to show that off. It’s a different tactic from a lot of the How To books about writing, which often break down how a plot should be constructed, complete with rising action and tension, unresolved questions, and battles of will and action. Moore is more concerned about spending the time to develop a world and know a set of characters before putting any of them through their paces. Everything else stems from that. He’s amused by some technical tricks like story construction and scene segues, but he’s more concerned about the “deeper” things like theme. I’ve read a lot of interviews and books where writers often talk about tripping over a theme in the process of writing a story, and then going through a rewrite to work it in better. Here, Moore is interested in the theme first, and the story second. It’s an interesting perspective, and one that should provoke some thought.

In a new afterwards he’s written for the book, Moore talks about finding his creative sweet spot in a world in which he’s established his reputation and the world lays in front of him, ready to soak up anything he has to say. He talks about being continuously challenged and not resting on his laurels. He doesn’t want to give the audience what they want for fear of being typecast.

As with any of Moore’s writings, there are nuggets of undeniable truth and wisdom scattered throughout the book. I want to quote one that jumped right out at me as I read it:

“Creating a single story requires that you make thousands and thousands of tiny creative decisions on the basis of whatever theories you hold dear and the application of large measures of intuition.”

Every aspiring writer should print that up and hang it on the wall behind his or her computer.

Remember what I said before about learning to letter comics by doing it? Moore agrees with that notion here as regards writing comics. It’s just more intense. You never realize what a tough job comic writers have until you sit down with that blank screen and a rough idea of a story in your mind. Where do you even begin the story? Do you use captions or narration, or just all dialogue? Who’s the point of view character? How does he or she speak? These are all decisions that get easier as you make them, but can be a real stumbling block towards getting started. It’s not all a scientific certainty, either. A lot of it, as Moore says, is intuition. Don’t get blocked by reading too many How To books.

ALAN MOORE’S WRITING FOR COMICS is a profound piece of work, looking at the art of writing for comics specifically in a new light. He’s careful about

THE COWBOY WALLY SHOW

Back before there was a Pipeline, there was an “Augie’s Reviews.” Brilliant name, eh? It lasted for about a year, before disappearing and reemerging as the column you see today.

It’s where I first became acquainted with one of the really cool benefits of writing this column — free stuff. Back then, it was just USENET. The world wide web was still discovering itself and most comics discussion was centralized on the rec.arts.comics.* hierarchy. Occasionally, someone would come along and write all the reviewers at the time — I think there were a half dozen of us — to ask us if we’d review their stuff. It’s where I first came into contact with J. Torres and THE COPYBOOK TALES. It’s also where I first read Kyle Baker’s work. As finances would allow, I would go back and read the rest of the Baker catalog.

Most of those early Pipeline and pre-Pipeline columns cause me to cringe. This one isn’t too bad, though. OK, I cringed once or twice, but that’s a much better ratio than the typical column from this era.

The following is a special column I wrote, dedicated entirely to THE COWBOY WALLY SHOW. Re-reading the book this past weekend and re-reading the review, I don’t think much has changed in my opinion of it. Since the recent reprint is labeled a special 16th anniversary reprinting with some typos removed, I think I can call this a special 7th anniversary column reprint with some of its most outlandish typos removed, too. It’s all so self-aware, isn’t it?

I’ll throw in some new comments in italics as we go, also, just to update things.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

It was practically a net.legend. “The Cowboy Wally Show” is something I had heard about and read of only on the Internet in my short time (year and a half or so) here. So when the publisher was offering reviews copies, I jumped at the chance.

I’m glad I did.

“The Cowboy Wally Show,” by Kyle Baker, is a compilation of the four chapters originally published in 1986, judging by the copyright. It is some of the funniest and most entertaining comic book fare I have ever read.

The cover may be a bit mis-leading. When I first opened the envelope to see the cover, my first fear was that I had waded into something overly sexual. (Well, there’s a big fat guy on stage on the cover with a trio of Vegas-like women, in front of a crowd with spotlights shining.) However, that fear proved unfounded. And the cover actually fits in perfectly with the story.

(It’s a new cover on this edition, in Baker’s new computer-enhanced color style, complete with color holds. The original cover is printed on the back of the new edition.)

What is the story? It’s a documentary of Cowboy Wally, “a slightly lewd, always rowdy fictional combination of W.C. Fields and a Texas oil magnate, with a bit of Mr. Rogers thrown in for good measure.” That’s what the back cover tells us. It’s right. (Although one could also argue that at times he looks like a fat Rush Limbaugh.) Cowboy Wally’s success story involves a series of questionable movies and TV shows, as well as a Congressional investigation or two.

The first chapter, and possibly the funniest, is an interview with Cowboy Wally as he tells us about his humble beginnings and his first children’s television shows. Not all of them were successful, mind you. But all of them will have you laughing. I don’t think I ever got more than a page at any one time into the story when I had to put down the book to laugh. This chapter is more like a skit show, without a main storyline, really, but jumping back and forth between the interview and clips of the old TV shows.

The second chapter, “Sands of Blood,” is perhaps the slowest. It is Cowboy Wally’s first starring role in a movie, and tells the story of a gang of French Foreign Legionnaires. While there is some funny stuff in here, as well, there’s nothing on the level of chapters one or four.

“Chapter Three: The Making of Hamlet” is perfect for those of us who had to go through that play in high school and hated every minute of it. (Cowboy Wally makes a brilliant defense for those of us who didn’t like it.) Due to a series of mishaps, Hamlet becomes a twenty minute film in modern lingo filmed in prison. Yes, it is as funny as it sounds.

“Chapter Four: Cowboy Wally’s Late Night Celebrity Showdown” gives chapter one a run for its money for funniest chapter. Let me quote the first page of it, to give you a general idea of what this chapter is about:

Special repeat presentation of one of the most requested episode of the popular late-night talk show.

Cowboy Wally and his guest, actress Linda Mason, are joined by former announcer Eddie Foy and old-time, singing cowboy Skeets Palomino for a night of memories, anecdotes, and small-arms fire.

This single episode increased the ratings of the show to such a degree that the following episodes were shown without commercials because no one could afford the advertising rates. The show was canceled two weeks later.

It starts off funny and builds momentum as the story goes along, before crashing to its finale, as well as the book’s.

Baker uses a four-tier, 8 panels-per-page system to tell the story. It’s all in black and white. There are no word balloons. This is the part of the mechanics of Baker’s storytelling that I found most interesting. He’s left the top quarter of each panel for just the dialogue. The words being spoken by a character show up just over his head. It works for a really nice effect and it pretty easy to read, except for a couple of sections in chapter two when the crowd scenes make it a little more difficult to tell who is talking. (Even then it is still mostly obvious, since the characters that are talking actually have their mouths open!) So, yes, the book is filled with interesting talking heads.

(Baker has pretty much continued that style of storytelling to this day. It’s not as awe-inspiring to me today as it was 7 years ago, but it is an effective technique.)

Marlowe & Company has done a good job packaging this, as well. It is square bound in a glossy-finish cardboard cover. The paper it is printed on is heavy white stock that shows less bleed-through than most papers. This is an especially good thing considering all the heavy blacks used in certain segments of the book. Simply put, it is well worth the $14.95 cover price.

(The new DC printing is also square bound and retains its price of $14.95. The new paper stock is lighter and shinier, but holds the artwork just as well. It also boasts of having “many of the typos removed,” but I’m not caffeinated enough to read through both books to prove that. I’ll just trust DC on that one.)

Friday: HULK premieres; Rob Worley gets a bad case of writer’s block.

After seeing some new footage on EBERT & ROEPER this weekend, I have renewed interest in the movie. It looks like Ang Lee is doing some nifty things with panels on the screen.

Next Tuesday: Another Pipeline Commentary and Review. Just like magic, it will appear in this very spot in just seven days. Don’t blink.

Saturday, 28 June 2003: The Madison Square Garden convention. Brian Bendis will be there with every artist he’s currently working with. I’ll be dropping by for a couple hours to collect autographs on my hardcover books.

Various and Sundry is still up and running, including a link to a MATRIX RELOADED script critique, a THE RIGHT STUFF DVD review, Spike Lee’s insane trip through cable, a rebirth of TOUGH CROWD, a review of FINDING NEMO, and much much more.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Somewhere around 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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