Balloonless | Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' speech, in book form

I attended a small, perpetually broke Catholic high school that couldn't afford to employ a guidance counselor. If we could have afforded one, it's highly unlikely it would've been Neil Gaiman, as nice as that might have been.

At the time I was nearing graduation and about to go off to college to earn an expensive degree in pursuit of my lifelong — all 18 years of it — ambition to be a writer, Gaiman was just the writer of The Sandman (and a few other pretty great comics), and was, in fact, nearing the final story arc of that seminal series. At that point in my life, I certainly would've liked advice from the writer of one of my favorite comic series.

In the years since, Gaiman's bona fides have only increased. In addition to writing comics, he's written novels for adults and kids, he' s written picture books, he's written screenplays, he's seen his works adapted into television and film, and he's enjoyed  the rarefied position of being a writer whose works are not only popular, but acclaimed, as well as being almost universally beloved in the field of comics, an industry with more than its fair share of crooks and cranks, of drawn daggers and venom.

Who better to offer advice to a young person about to embark — or at least attempt to embark — on a life in the arts, particularly a young person who would like to be a successful, professional writer of quality fiction? Someone who might want to grow up to be someone like, say, Neil Gaiman?

Someone at Philadelphia's University of the Arts apparently thought Gaiman would make an ideal dispenser of advice to young creatives, as he was invited to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2012. He did so, and his speech was one that garnered plenty of attention at the time from many of his fans.

It was good advice and, more than a year later, it still is. And so thanks to graphic designer (and occasional comic book writer) Chip Kidd and publisher Harper Collins, the speech has become a short, pretty, read-it-one-sitting, perfect-for-graduation-gift-giving book, Make Good Art (although the cover and spine both read Neil Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' Speech, and Kidd's cover design suggests the title is actually Fantastic Mistakes: Neil Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' Speech, the fine print, Amazon and my library's catalog all seems to agree that its title is indeed Make Good Art).

Now, I can't say the book is a perfect marriage of the verbal and the visual, and that the two creators' contributions to the final product form a seamless whole, each complementing the other in the way that so much of Gaiman's best comics work turned out. Well, I could say that, but I wouldn't be telling the truth.

Gaiman's text is a pleasure to read, including personal anecdotes from his own career and the best advice he had been given (and then  proceeded to ignore), little maxim-like, fortune-cookie mantras, jokes slight and dry and bigger and broader, and a list of six major pearls of wisdom, around which the speech is organized.

Kidd's design is a pleasure to look at. Primary red and a creamy yellow text are used on a light sea blue (I'm sure there's a book printer's name for these colors, but I'd need paint swatches from a hardware store to name them) on the covers, and insides that same red and blue are used over the white of the pages. The short speech is stretched out to 80 pages, mainly through Kidd's arrangement of the words, as he turns each page into a little art installation.

It's Kidd who controls the way the text is read, as he emphasizes words and phrases through his design, some of which is clever, and some of which is way too clever, as in a page where he places only the words "immensely liberating," with the second word being liberated itself, printed diagonally and far away from "immensely," as if floating off on its own.

Or a few pages in which he uses a curly bracket or brace — that is, this thing: { — to make visual a mountain metaphor Gaiman uses. Or his Hollywood sequel title spelling of the numbered pieces of advice, so that "secondly" is "2econdly" and "thirdly" is "3hirdly" and so on.

This will either make for a fun read, or an irritating read, probably depending on your tolerance for whimsy and or your mood when reading, but, if it's an evil, it's a more or less necessary one, as turning the speech into a long, winding guitar solo of book design is pretty much the only way to make it into a book-book of this sort (at least without resorting to illustration).

Both parts work, and they work toward the goal of turning a short speech into a big enough book, but the presentation is so forceful that its easy to imagine a reader getting lost on a first reading, or a reader wishing the go-between weren't so insistent on getting between reader and writer.

Regardless of what one thinks of the particulars of the presentation, though, this is a valuable object, aesthetically pleasing and with the sort of advice I would have appreciated getting at 18, 22 or 30, and am happy to receive as late as last week, when I first read this.

The part I found most amusing was the part that Gaiman describes as "secret knowledge" of how comics freelancers continue to get work (while noting it applies to other fields as well), and it is because "their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver their work on time...you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine."

That actually explains quite a bit about the product that much of the comics industry, particularly the parts of the comics industry that Gaiman has worked for, releases. And hey, it seems to apply to Gaiman's own current comics work, Sandman: Overture, which has been delayed between its first and second issues!


Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman and Chip Kidd, HarperCollins, 80 pages, $13

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