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Review: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures by Matty Madden and Jessica Abel

Before I started reading Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, Matt Madden warned me that it was a book for praxis, not theory. As amusing as I find it that such a disclaimer needs to be given to me, the book draws upon aspects of theory throughout in an informed and well-measured way, and I am led to thinking further about the relationship between theory and praxis.

First off, this book is a great resource. It’s put together well, lays out all the essential issues from hand lettering to stretching to avoid tendonitis (I know from personal experience: important and overlooked!). It even has homework and lesson plans, along with digital resources as well. For praxis, this all is fantastic.

However, no review of mine should escape looking at theoretical issues and reading this book has made me once again consider how praxis can draw from theory.

For instance, an immediate question of mine was: Why is it important to include defining “comics” at all? The book — wonderfully titled — talks entirely about the process, what I would say “writing in visual language.” So, why spend additional space trying to shoehorn various social manifestations of “writing pictures” (i.e. manga, comics, graphic novels, etc.) into the umbrella of “comics”?

First off, why should people who are aiming to create visual stories necessarily care about the arguments for what are or are not "comics"? These issues may be important for scholars, but most who read this book can just go by the "I know it when I see it frame." Truly, if they needed to have their "horizons expanded" by a broader definition, they probably aren't the ones reading this book.

Furthermore, as I see it, inviting readers into the subcuture of “comics” is unimportant to the aims of the book. Especially since they do well to state the applications of the ideas beyond genres and styles, this book is not about “drawing comics” — it’s about learning to be a visual writer. To this end, mentioning “comics” as a cover term at all belies this broad goal. What better way can people expand their applications of “writing in pictures” than by not immediately being co-opted into a subculture that they might not desire being in? Let them learn the visual language, then let them decide what they want to do with it on their own terms.

With the course of instruction, I thought the emphasis on thumbnails and not on scripts was a great choice that isn’t focused on enough. This is the central place that “writing in pictures” happens, and the assembly line style with scripting skirts this step often. It nicely reinforces the theme that this book is teaching people to be authors, not cogs in a manufacturing wheel.

I do have some problems with the instruction of panel transitions as how authors are guided to think about their craftsmanship. Now, heavily influenced by McCloud as a teenager, I did go through a period where I thought in terms of panel transitions (or at least I thought I did), and I certainly benefited from it.

However, when I look back on my thought processes with a broader theory in mind, I realize that I wasn’t just looking just one panel ahead as transitions would have us think. Really, I planned for whole sequences, to the point where (in thumbnails) I might draw an expected panel later in the sequence before filling in the ones in between. Such a process would predict that we are thinking in terms of whole sequences not linear panel-to-panel relationships — as my theories of sequential images imply. I suspect that others have had similar experiences.

On the plus side, what transitions do allow is a directed focus on storytelling methods that convey aspects of the scene beyond just the actions. They provide a cover for people to think about whether to slow “time” down, show other characters or the environment, etc. However, if we were to develop a more robust vocabulary of types of panels to be used and the potential for what panels might contain, we might not need the bootstrap of “transitions” to couch it in.

In fact, while I think that learning theory can be beneficial to practice, perhaps what would be a more direct and simple learning tool would be to see that theory in action. For example, in section 3, they discuss rhythm and pacing — the decision making for what to show and when to show it and use several variations of stories where they demonstrate different pacings. This type of section could be expanded to account for the types of things covered by transitions.

I would also have enjoyed seeing a greater discussion of page layouts and the uses that one can make with them, especially regarding meaning and rhythm. While I disagree with McCloud that the size of panels has an effect on narrative time, I do believe it has an effect on pace — the rhythm and meter of reading. Elaborating on these concepts would be very useful for beginning authors.

Finally, while it has recently become a point of research for me, I found their comments on reading order a bit wanting. Despite their specific advocacy to not use “blockage” scenarios (where two panels are vertically stacked to the left of a long panel) they praise another page by Mike Mignola that uses this layout just three pages prior. The overall message of “using unambiguous layouts” rings true, but this inconsistency (along with personal knowledge that fluent readers don’t have ambiguity in such scenarios) was a little disappointing.

Despite these issues, this book is a fantastic resource and accomplishment given other books on the topic. I wish that I had it when I was a teenager, as I probably would have devoured it voraciously, doing all the exercises and then some. Indeed, while I probably would have gotten more mileage out of it then, I plan on using its resources here on out.