The Middle Ground #106 | <i>Mastering</i> and apprentices

Mastering Comics, the second comic-creating textbook by Artbabe and La Perdida creator Jessica Abel and 99 Ways to Tell a Story's Matt Madden, finally hit shelves last month, offering a remarkably thorough (and remarkably enjoyable, as well) lesson in what it takes to not only make a comic, but get it in front of readers, as well. It's no surprise that it's so wonderful; their previous collaborative effort, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, was similarly informative and entertaining to comic creators and the more generally curious alike, and the two have taught at New York's School of Visual Arts for the past few years. I had a brief chat with the two about the release of the book, and what it takes to "Master" comics.

"Mastering Comics" -- it's a great title, but almost imposing in its finality. Did you feel pressure to include everything you could possibly think of in order to "earn" the title?

Well, the first thing to notice is that we used the gerund and not the infinitive. It's not called "How to Master Comics" or "You Will Master Comics." "Mastering Comics" implies a process that is ongoing. I think we make it clear throughout both of our books that we don't claim to have all the answers or a guaranteed way to become a great cartoonist. Our goal is to give readers as many tools and pointers as possible to help them master comics or any other narrative artform.

Was there something about Drawing Words & Writing Pictures that left you thinking "You know, we really should've said something about …" or was Mastering Comics simply the next step, and the result of both the success of DW&WP and your teaching careers?

It's a combination of both, really. In fact, when we were working on DW&WP, at a certain point we realized we had way too much material for one book. That's when we first realized we would have to do two volumes. It works out well because the two volumes have pretty distinct personalities. The first volume has all the basics you need for making comments and telling stories visually. The new book you expands in a lot of directions and covers things like color and perspective that we didn't have room for and which are more advanced topics anyway.

Another of those advanced topics in Mastering Comics is the book's attention to what happens after you've finished actually making the comic. This book goes so much further than other "how-to" books for comics, covering the publication (whether self-publishing or finding a publisher) and marketing of it, as well. Is this something that you've always thought was an obvious-by-its-absence part of comics education, or did the amount of attention it got in the book surprise you?

We feel it's important to directly address the fact that being a cartoonist, like being any kind of artist, also means being a businessperson, like it or not (and most of us don't like it!).The challenge here is that there are so many different aspects to the business of publishing, especially now in the digital age. There's no way to talk about all the scenarios but we hope to give enough pointers to give artists to help artists orient themselves.

Talking about the business of publishing, how important do you think getting an agent, a lawyer, an accountant, etc. is for a comic creator these days? With things like Alan Moore's Watchmen situation or the Siegel and Kirby family lawsuits making headlines, do you think today's new creators just "know" that the business side is as important as the creative side in making a living as a content creator these days?

We see evidence every day among our peers and students that most artists still don't fully appreciate the importance of understanding the business side of art. As to whether you need an agent or a lawyer, it really depends on the situation but we think it's crucial that all artists do their best to understand their financial and legal situation.

There's a lot of material in the book about webcomics as a separate (but equal) thing from print comics. Is that something that you've found new creators are pushing for, or do you think that print comics are still "the goal" for the majority of up-and-comers?

Web comics have definitely changed the playing field and a lot of new creators that we meet at conventions and in our teaching are equally interested in web comics in print comics and some really only want to work for the web. This stuff is hard to write about authoritatively because the technology is changing so quickly (and to be honest it's not our strong point anyway). But we embrace web comics and new digital platforms. We think they're a cheap and democratic way to get work out and they can also lead to innovation. At the same time, we're not worried about books on paper disappearing anytime soon. In fact, comics have a special advantage as printed matter because they make for such beautiful objects. Just look at any book from Drawn & Quarterly or the gorgeous experiments in color and format from Nobrow Books in the U.K.

How has creating this book, and DW&WP, informed your own creative processes? Now that you're both getting back into "doing" instead of "teaching" -- mind you, as a former teacher, I know there's a lot of doing there, too -- do you find yourself approaching creative work differently having thought about the technical aspects so much?

I can't say that making these books has greatly changed my own creative practice, mainly since what we're doing is writing down and sharing knowledge we've picked up over the years. I do feel like I've strengthened some of my technical skills in perspective and composition thanks to spending so much time researching, digesting, and illustrating those subjects. More generally, I feel like there's a constant back and forth between me as an artist and me as teacher/editor. I can't really give any concrete examples but I'm always learning from my students, being challenged and inspired by them, and I'm sure that makes it way back into my own work.

Both Mastering Comics and Drawing Words & Writing Pictures are published by First Second, and available now. You can find out more about the books, and Abel and Madden here. Thanks to First Second's Gina Gagliano for setting this up.

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