Jessica Abel and Matt Madden Teach "Mastering Comics"

By Danica Davidson

In 2008 Jessica Abel and Matt Madden released their comics textbook Drawing Words & Writing Pictures to show you that textbooks can indeed be fun and entertaining. But because there’s always more to learn, they’re back with their “second semester” textbook, Mastering Comics. MTV Geek wanted to learn more (including what we’d learn by reading!) so we spoke to Abel and Madden to get the scoop.

Geek: How does Mastering Comics expand on what you taught in Drawings Words & Writing Pictures?

Abel & Madden: In Mastering Comics, we return to all the topics covered in DWWP and work to not only deepen students' understanding of things like pictorial composition and design, inking, and story structure, but more importantly, to broaden it. DWWP is a highly structured book, with 15 chapters that build carefully on one another, and it intentionally doesn't offer a big palette of choices for how to make a comic. This is so that the tasks in the book can be achievable, and readers will come out of the book as cartoonists. But of course, we're very aware that there are endless ways to make comics, and MC is where we try to open those floodgates and point students out in new directions. Mastering Comics also covers a lot of topics that aren't mentioned in DWWP at all.

Geek: What topics do you cover?

Abel & Madden: Mastering Comics is organized into four "units" that can be summed up as, more or less, creativity and generating stories; structuring work visually; advanced tools and techniques (i.e. inking, lettering, using tone and color, creating for digital platforms); and professional practice and getting your work into the world. There are a ton of topics covered under each heading, of course, but that's the gist of it.

Geek: Who is the right audience for Mastering Comics?

Abel & Madden: There are actually four main categories of reader we're speaking to in Mastering Comics.

Centrally, of course, we wrote the book for reasonably experienced cartoonists. It's not generally for complete beginners (for them, we recommend Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, of course!). Using Mastering Comics in this way, you don't have to have worked through DWWP, but should have done some comics on your own.

Second, it's for makers of, and those studying, visual narrative (as is DWWP). The vast majority of what we say in these books, with very little adaptation, can be applied to those interested in graphic design, web design, filmmakers, animators, even advertisers.

Third, it's for writers, both of comics and of prose. Generating ideas is the same for writers as for cartoonists, and we have many activities, both using drawing and not, that would be of benefit to writers. We also have a specific focus on learning to write comics, with long sections on script formats, story structure, and a method to write comics visually without knowing how to draw. We are definitely of the opinion that writers of comics need to know inside out how comics are made. They should make a few just to get a sense of what it takes, and what decisions are made in construction the visual narrative. Working through DWWP makes a great primer, and MC is a grad course.

Fourth, both DWWP and MC are for readers of comics who want (or need) to have a deeper understanding of what they're reading. You can immeditately understand how a discussion of symmetry and contrast in comics page layout applies when you're making a story, but equally when reading one.

Geek: What have you learned about making comics from your own individual works?

Matt Madden: A basic principle I figured out through trial and error is that it really helps to use a regular panel grid to structure your pages. In my case, I almost always start with a 9-panel grid which I stick to more or less strictly depending on the story. I find it gives me an architectural scaffold to build on and it also gives the work a rhythmic backbeat. It's certainly not something everyone has to do but in may case, discovering the grid back in the mid-90s really helped me move my cartooning to the next level.

Jessica Abel: It took me many years to figure out how to structure a compelling story. My first step on that path was actually reading Archie Comics (recommended by a friend for this purpose!) and trying to apply their lessons to my tragic 20-something characters. It was an awkward fit at first!

Geek: Will you be writing more comics textbooks?

Abel & Madden: Not in the short run. We need to transfer our book-making energies to our own creative work for a few years while we let these books find their audiences. We have ideas for future books so it's certainly possible we'll come back to it down the line. In the meantime, we will continue to create and post new activities and resources for students and anyone interested in comics on dw-wp.com.

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