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Book Review: How Comics Work

By Dave Gibbons and Tim Pilcher

Comic books are sufficiently large and popular that there are many books about making comic books. Therefore, to stand out from this crowd, a new book needs something different and this one has that: Dave Gibbons has worked successfully in comic books for over 40 years, is the first UK Comics Laureate, and, oh yeah, illustrated Watchmen, The Greatest Superhero Comic Book Ever™. If he’s got something to say about the making of comic books, it’s worth listening to.

The first thing to mention is that this isn’t strictly a book about making comic books – as the introduction puts it, ‘The book is an examination of the creative process it takes to make a comic’. This is a subtle difference but an important one: the purpose of this book is capture how Gibbons goes about the process of making a comic book, from the first idea, to developing the outline into a script, to turning that into the pages of a comic book, then lettering and colouring; it also takes into account the design aspect of the finished project. It is not stating that this method is the only way; it is the way that Gibbons approaches making comic books, based on his many years of experience and the high level of excellence he has maintained throughout his career.

How Comics Work is split into six main chapters dedicated to a specific part of the process: Scriptwriting, Visual Groundwork, Sequential Storytelling, Lettering, Colouring, and Design. (There is a small seventh chapter with some exercises dedicated to helping you start making your own comic book.) Each chapter goes through the process involved according to Gibbons, starting with mentioning his influences in each aspect before going into detail. So scriptwriting talks about using a mind map to generate what the story will be, before outlining, then plotting and world building, then pacing and movement. Visual Groundwork talks about character and costume design, creating character style guides, developing the landscapes and locations for the story, then figuring out props and vehicles.

The biggest chapter, perhaps understandably from someone known primarily as an artist (despite the many books he has written), is Sequential Storytelling and it is this chapter that really gets into the detail of turning scripts into comic book pages. As with all chapters, all pages are supplemented with suitable artwork (from Gibbons and artists illustrating his work, plus samples of the work of creators who have influenced him), but there is a wealth of behind-the-scenes material, sketches, studies, photographs and information that demonstrate the method. For example, in the section about thumbnails and visual pacing, it includes Gibbons’ thumbnail checklist for Superman Annual #11 (‘For The Man Who Has Everything’), which not only sets out how he will draw the individual pages but which he uses as a tracking device for working through the book, one line through it for the pencils, another line through it for the inks.

This chapter is a fascinating look into the thought involved in telling a story through static images in panels, as Gibbons talks about designing the whole page, the use of grid structures, panel designs and even some art theory on ‘hot spots’ on a page for The Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #2, and showing how the artist controls how the eye movement of the reader or creates a dramatic effect just with the use of panels. But it also includes sections on the pencils, the different nuances required in inking and the nature of digital inking and digital artwork.

Later chapters demonstrate the extent to which Gibbons is a complete comic book creator who has done everything, because the chapters on Lettering, Colouring and Design are based on his work – he started out in lettering, so he understands everything about dead space, balloon positioning and flow and the variation in balloons; he talks about kerning and leading like a man who knows from experience. He talks about hand lettering (he lettered Watchmen), display lettering, digital lettering and sound effects – all aspects vital to a comic book but perhaps unappreciated in the wider context. The same can be said about the chapter on Colouring, which really goes into details about the differences in drawing for colour, colour roughs, fully painted artwork and particularly the nitty-gritty of digital colouring.

The thing that comes through in the book is the level of care, attention and thought that is required to make a comic book, and the amount of attention to detail Gibbons puts into his work. He understands what is required and is able to impart this understanding, without it turning into a dry manual. The more important aspect in the book when it comes to making a comic book is the questions Gibbons asks about each process – if you want to make the best comic book you can, read the list questioning the different facets necessary in the process and apply them to your work, and it will vastly improve the quality of the finished product.

This is a 192-page book that isn’t a dense academic text – it is not overpopulated with writing (applying a similar maxim Gibbons applies to the number of words of dialogue on a comic book page), but what words there are on the page are important and come from a man who truly understands what he’s talking about from all angles (there’s a lovely line about two writers he’s famously worked with: ‘Alan [Moore] is like Mozart’ But Frank [Miller] is like Miles Davis.’) because, even if you don’t know his work, there is plenty of evidence from his career included in the book to support and validate his arguments. It is an enjoyable read and warrants a place on the shelf of someone who wants to make comic books or someone who is interested in the process behind the comic books they love.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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