by Greg Ruth
Panel drawing from The Matrix: RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON

I have started this particular post many times before and always ran into the same problem. It’s just too big, and there’s too much to talk about when we talk about comics. So I’ve decided to set it up as a long form series and avoid giving each topic the necessary short shrift required by an overview, and spend the time on each area that each deserves. The goal is not to get into the details too much of how to make comics work on the page- for that you could and should chase down my betters on this in Scott McCloud’s volumes or the more recent Carl Potts book on the mechanics of crafting mainstream cape comics. My approach will be more derived from my own self taught methods. I never went to school for comics, nor have I been trained in any of the rigor of the medium… I just made it all up as I went along. I’m doing that even today. So as a testament to not needing anything but a passion for comics, and you DO need a passion for it it survive the medium, I’ll just talk about what it means to me, for me and what I’ve learned from it as a unique and powerful storytelling medium. I’ll discuss the pitfalls of the way the film industry uses comics as a resource, and map the world that has changed from a medium once dominated by DC and Marvel, that has now grown far beyond their clutches into the nascent stages of what it truly can be. But first thing’s first. You gotta start somewhere, so let’s start at the beginning.

Double page spread from Koike/Kojima’s seminal LONE WOLF AND CUB
In The Beginning

I don’t think I’ve ever met a working professional who came to love comics out of the blue. We all have a book or a series of books that so affected us that we wanted to repeat the experience for others, whether we knew it or not. Some grew up in comics, reading the old cape books from Marvel and DC, others were brewed later through Zap! EC and the giants of the alternative scene captained by the likes of Crumb. I myself came from neither, and came later around highschool. Around 1987, my neighborhood friend, Stiles White literally shoved a copy of Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS into my hands and demanded I read it. It changed everything for me. By the end of the book I could never go back and I needed more. Luckily we were in a new awakening of comics as a medium from the dreary old days of the decaying silver age. Popular comics were being reborn through titles like Morrison’s ANIMAL MAN and DOOM PATROL, Gaiman’s SANDMAN, Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN and V FOR VENDETTA, and MIRACLEMAN. A new rush of manga titles like AKIRA, AREA 88, APPLESEED and MAI THE PSYCHIC GIRL, and what I consider to be one of the highest achievements in comics to date, LONE WOLF AND CUB. Basically each and every wednesday brought a new stack of utterly incredible and groundbreaking books. It was a heady time to come into the medium and one I don’t think we’ll ever really see again. Still the great thing about books is, they’re all new if you haven’t read them before, so don’t feel like you missed a boat or anything. You can now binge-read these titles and the hundreds since that will inspire you.

The point of all this biography is to illustrate the first and most important foundational stone of becoming a working creator in the field of comics: READ THEM. Study them. Re-read them and pay attention. Take a book you love and study it in detail- find out why it works, and how. copy those tricks, and do it again. Practice, practice, practice. There is no better school for learning about comics than comics themselves. When you read an issue or a page and it hits you, take it apart and try to figure out why it does, and how the creator did it. Comics isn’t mysticism- its’ mechanical. You can dissect it and find out why it works. You’ll need this skill when you start making your own, because without it you’ll never be able to understand why yours work or don’t work and why. Study crappy ones too- you can often times get a better sense of how a narrative form works by seeing it fail than you can by taking ion a success. This is true in prose, film… any narrative medium. The disasters have a lot to teach. Be available to learn them and you will grow in comics like a weed on a warm summer day. I’ve been making comics now for nearly twenty years and this and nearly all of the old greats still give me the tickles. Something that works so well always works well. So even if you’re an old codger like myself, don’t forget to go back and dip into the initial well of inspiration. There’s treasures aplenty still waiting for you there, and if it’s really good, a few surprises you missed before you knew how to find them.

The Two Front War

What makes comics such a tricky medium is the need to master not just one discipline, but two. Comics is a medium that can be boiled down to two essential parts: Writing and Drawing. Most comics artists aren’t writers in the strictest sense, and many of them will tell you they aren’t at all. This isn’t entirely true. You need to have a basic grasp of narrative form and storytelling to draw a proper story, even if someone else is writing it. You’ll benefit far more if you learn to write for yourself too. But it’s still very different from prose or even screenwriting because comics writing carries with it the necessary consideration of the pictures that will tell the lion’s share of the story. You want to show more than tell, and you need to come to grips with the requirements of both mediums if you’re going to make good comics- even if you never write one of your own. So don’t just read the comics for awesome art, or get suckered in by splash page thinking. Read comics that are well written, and pay strict attention to how the words and pictures interact with each other. Read novels and short stories and think of how you might visualize them without trampling over what they’re already doing so well.

One of the greatest exercises I tell up-and-comers is to find a passage in one of their favorite book, take a page or two or a simple scene from it, use it as a source for making a short five or six page comic. Don’t do more than ten, and ideally stick to five if you can manage it. You don’t want to get get bogged down too early. You want and need to bang this out, look it over, show it to others and do it again. Ultimately if you do this for say, eight different stories, you’ll come out the other end a far more capable comics storyteller than when you started. Even if you plan on writing your own material, do this instead of starting with your own work. Being able to adapt another’s story frees you of half the burden of doing it all yourself, and forces you to think about contending, meeting and working with the vision of another creative. As much as you may believe in your own voice, don’t let it prevent you from the vital experience of adapting another’s.

Page from unpublished personal project, THE CALENDAR PRIEST

The two most informative experiences I ever had in comics were adapting a Goosebumps novel for Scholastic, and doing Conan: Born on the Battlefield with Kurt Busiek. The former was taking an existing novella (about 120- 150 pages) and making a 40 page comics from it. I was not allowed to change the writing, but I could cut it and rearrange it. I just couldn’t add to it. The first lesson I learned was that the restrictions birthed creative new solutions. Fences make freedom. They encourage it by forcing you to fight against its strictures. Anyone who balks at restrictions just doesn’t get it. With Kurt, while I was able to make certain changes, add panels and tweak storytelling so that he would then go back and rewrite the script to fit the art, I still had to justify it. I had to understand what I was doing enough to vouch for it and even at times argue for it. (I think our poor editor spent most of the time just watch Kurt and I email/debate each other back and forth). I didn’t win every fight, and likely lost half of them, but I learned bucket loads about how to make a story work better, and when to let the writer do it, and obey.

So don’t be afraid to take on another’s coat and walk around in it for a while. At this early stage you are learning to see how your wings work. Don’t let the height of the nest or fear of falling dissuade you from falling and landing on your ass. Just make sure the height isn’t so high it kills you. Stick to short form work, get it done and do another. Do it over and over. Like drawing that takes a thousand bad attempts to reach a success, you will have to do dozens if not a hundred bad comics pages before you begin to truly understand the medium, and what your hand in it is.

Page from CONAN: BORN ON THE BATTLEFIELD with Kurt Busiek

Share and Listen and Do It Again

Now. You’ve done your short piece adaptation and it’s time to show it to someone else. If you’re like me in any sense, you’ve just spent the last week or so deep inside your own noggin putting this thing together, navigating all the clever tricks you’ve employed and fretting over the others you barely understand… it’s time to let another human look at it. If you’re able to show it to a pro and get experienced advice, that’s ideal, but you should still be able to show it to someone who isn’t, because those folk are your potential readers. Crafty inside pro dances and jokes may work well with a working regular, but they’re going to be missed entirely about the casual reader. And as a young and upcoming comics master, your first duty is to your reader- and especially the reader who isn’t necessarily interested in comics. The medium has long self-ghettoized itself by speaking only to its own people, and we owe it to ourselves and the medium’s advancement to speak to more than just the reflection in the mirror. Look at the current contemporary art world: that is what happens when you cease to be meaningful to your audience, and it’s not pretty no matter how much it convinces you it is.

If you can show it to a loved one who can be honest about what they’re seeing, great, but I recommend going to a pal or someone less invested in making sure you have a good day. Be prepared that no matter how finished you think you are, to discover that you still have a long way to go. A regular walk a a day reader might just not get it or like it, or be confused, but they may not possess the training to say exactly why. A working pro will. But both require you to listen and then process what they’re saying and parse for yourself what’s valuable and what isn’t. This is the hardest bit: No matter how many good reviews I get from even the most lofty sources, it’s the one nasty one I remember. We’re predisposed to self immolation when it comes to the creative process and that can be a good thing. it keeps us questioning ourselves, it keep us sharp and frosty so we don’t get too comfortable with our conventions. But you don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of negativity. Find the middle hold on to it. Even if you feel the tangible tug of despair, whistle past that stuff even if you know you’re lying to yourself. SLeep on it, walk away and come back to it. The hardest thing to do is to see your work clearly and without all the “you” baggage. This is why you show it to others in the first place. Remember: you’re learning. You’re developing and growing, and because of this you’re going to going to screw up more often than you succeed. That’s fine and that’s not a reason to quit, but if you lack the insane obsessive passion for the medium, these pecking crows of criticism, self or otherwise, will devour you. You have to find a place at least occasionally to be happy to find joy in the medium, and that joy has to be enough to light your way through the darkest times of the process. If it isn’t, learn to recognize it and think about doing something else. This is true of most everything of course, but for comics, a medium that is a gigantic time-suck of epic proportions, with a low return rate, you’d better draw your energy from an interior source despite all the barbs on the outside or it just won’t work. You’ve got to love this stuff, but if you manage to find that love, there ain’t none other like it. It’s a lonely isolating business but it’s magic pure and simple when it comes together.