Comics : How To Create Comics

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: 2009.

Background...

Back in the early 90's Marvel editor/writer Danny Fingeroth was a pretty big name. He was group editor of the Spider-Man comics for a couple years, and our SpiderFan Credits Database features over 400 contributions on Spider-Man titles.

Danny was also a writer of sorts, scripting all fifty issues of Darkhawk, plus other fine classic works such as the comic book adaptation of the Howard the Duck Movie. He resigned from Marvel in 1995 to take up the post of editor-in-chief of Byron Preiss Multimedia's "Virtual Comics" groups.

It's easy to imagine the appeal of such a position. The dot-com boom was just beginning to gather steam. Internet hype + comic book hype must have made "Virtual Comics" seem an irresistible combination. In hindsight, I suspect the reality fell somewhat short of the dream. These days Danny Fingeroth is editor and contributor for "Write Now!" magazine, a magazine about writing comics, produced by TwoMorrows Publishing.

Artist Mike Manley wasn't so well-known in mainstream circles, though he was at Marvel long enough to pick up a job illustrating several issues Darkhawk, penned by that self-same Danny Fingeroth. Since then, Mike has dabbled with freelance work, some drawing for Animated TV series, along with his own online ventures.

Mike now writes for "Draw!" magazine, sister publication to "Write Now!" He advises people how to draw for comics. He may indeed offer good advice on that subject - however I would be very wary of taking Mike's advise on web-site composition. Mike's own site actionplanet.com is firmly stuck in the 1990's and combines an impressive lack of features with a painful palette of garish colors.

In Detail...

How To Create Comics
Jun 2006 : Review (No SM)
Summary: Collected Essays from "Write Now!" and "Draw!" Magazines
Publisher:  TwoMorrows Publishing
Writer:  Danny Fingeroth, Mike Manley
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In 2004/05, sister publications Write Now! Magazine and Draw! Magazine decided to run a cross-over feature where Danny and Mike would produce a new eight-page comic book promo story, and would describe it in detail from both sides of the creative equation. And this they did, featuring it in Write Now! #8 and Draw! #9.

Then figuring there was still some mileage in the concept, the two of them subsequently collated the material, added some new content, and TwoMorrows re-published the extended offering as this book - "How To Create Comics". Then, just in case you hadn't already got the message, Danny and Mike reworked the content one final time into DVD format "How to Draw Comics from Script to Print". And if you still haven't learned anything by that stage, then you're probably beyond their help.

But just how much help are these guys really? Well, let's open this 108 page 8.5" x 11" square-bound cardboard cover work and see what we have inside. The first half of the work is a blow-by-blow description of the conceptual origins of "The Thief of Time," Danny and Mike's young time-traveling, gymnast/martial-arts sexy skinny heroine.

The background begins with the exchange of emails during which Danny and Mike build up the skeleton of the characters - twins Heather (the main protagonist who travels time, steals stuff and kicks butt) and Henry (the tech-nerd brother who operates the machinery and watches over their secret lab). There's also their mysterious father who is now "lost in time"...

Subsequent chapters then present the same material in half a dozen different formats and stages of progression through the creative process as it moves from idea to reality. Danny presents a page of character/plot notes, Mike offers a sample page of character sketches. There's a two-page story outline, then a three-page "Marvel Style" (i.e. abbreviated, no dialog) plot.

Now we're basically into the full eight-page story. We see the tale re-told and re-told in several different formats:

  • Mike's page-by-page thumbnail pencil layout.
  • Page-by-page script & SFX.
  • Page-by-page balloon placement.
  • Page-by-page in full script.

This last full-script retelling is presented in order that writers can appreciate the difference between the Marvel and Full-Script styles. However, I must admit that by this stage, I'm getting a little fed up of this eight page story. Is it absolutely necessary to re-tell the entire thing every time? Surely two pages of full-script would be sufficient for me to understand the difference between the two styles?

A half-dozen page interlude follows here, in which Dan and Mike reminisce about their creative process. Unfortunately, here (as in other parts of the book) Fingeroth and Manley can't seem to help but talk about the good old days, and their shared work on Darkhawk. Ah yes... Darkhawk.

The most tragic part of this nostalgic wallowing is the seriousness with which these two professionals treat their run on Darkhawk. They don't seem to realize that Darkhawk is treated by the average adult comic reader with the same belated contempt which most creations of that early 90's era attract. Few of the comic books of that era were artistic achievements worthy of acclaim. And in a sea of mediocrity, Darkhawk did not truly rise above the masses.

How can I put it gently?

Dude, your comic book sucked!

What's more... you bringing your work on Darkhawk into the conversation every chapter is not actually helping your credibility among anybody who has completed puberty!

Yes the 90's was a crazy time. Rabid fan-boys were buying #1 issues of any-old-shizzle as long as it featured a glow-in-the-dark cover. And great, you worked for Marvel. That is an achievement to which many, many people aspire. And while at Marvel, you produced the comics they told you to produce, so that your kids had food and shoes and health insurance. That's life, and that's nothing to be ashamed of either. That makes you a professional.

But if you're trying to acquire (a) independent comic "cred" or (b) a track record of literary achievement, then Darkhawk is a vehicle with very limited application to those ends. And it gets worse. Embarrassingly, the two "aspiring visionaries" begin to discuss how much money they might make from their new creation "The Thief of Time". Would they sell out for a six figure sum? For a seven figure sum?

This is just humiliating. Sure, all aspiring writers dream of making it big - of creating the next Spider-Man, James Bond or Harry Potter. We all pleasure ourselves considering the delights and sweet torments of the choices. Do we take the huge cash payout, or settle for the merely "large" payout but maintain our "artistic integrity"? Would we accept a minor role in the movie? Would Spielberg let us be Assistant Director?

However, I have the decency to keep these self-indulgent fantasies purely private. I don't publish them and expose my secret shames to the world at large. I just wish Danny and Mike had demonstrated the same self-control.

We move on. It's time once again to re-re-re-see the eight page "Thief of Time" story as finished pencils. Then some very specific notes from Mike on using PhotoShop for coloring, and finally we get to see the eight page story for the very last time in full color on glossy paper.

That's basically the end of the main lessons. There's some fill-in "extra material" including:

  • A six page Darkhawk retrospective. (Pass me a bucket).
  • Some notes from Danny on "getting published".
  • Some detailed notes from John Morrow on suitable electronic formats for providing comics to printers. (Pretty advanced stuff really. Let's create the comic and sell it first, eh?)
  • A dozen re-printed 1-page "Write Now! Comics School Mini Lessons" (Actually containing some quite useful thoughts).
  • A list of web-pages and other books to try.

In General...

Many people have a dream to get a comic book commercially published, and yes you can include me among that number. Unfortunately, the comic book industry is probably the third-hardest industry in the world to break into. The second-hardest is the Hollywood Movie business, and the most difficult is getting a job as the guy who oils up the Miss World Beauty Pageant competitors just before they go on stage for the bikini parade.

I suspect that this book will appeal to a certain audience. I could imagine this appealing to the 16-20 year-old "I-wanna-be-Todd-McFarlane" fan base. The material isn't particularly difficult in general, and it recovers the same ground so many times that you can't help but absorb something via osmosis. What's more, maybe those kids might be young enough to have read Darkhawk when he first came out, but not old enough to have re-read it and figured out just how shallow it truly was.

But if (like myself) you aspire to being perhaps the next Alan Moore or Will Eisner, then you might find that you've already outgrown this book stylistically, and probably also in much of the material.

Let's assume that you manage to put aside the sad attempts of the writers to cling to Darkhawk as a badge of honor, and can also ignore the even sadder public exposure of self-ambitions best kept private. Furthermore, let's say that you are capable of ignoring the immature characterizations which make up "The Thief of Time". Even then, I think you'll be somewhat disappointed.

Why? Well, because I don't think Danny Fingeroth is a very good teacher, and I don't think that the material here is well presented or explained. It's hard not to compare Fingeroth's instructional technique with Eisner's Will Eisner: Comics & Sequential Art or McCloud's Understanding Comics. In both cases, Danny comes up very short indeed.

I will admit that Danny does cover most of the basics (albeit with far too much repetition). However, despite the attempt to group into logical chapters, I felt that the overall structure jumped back and forwards nevertheless. Also, the coverage of material is erratic. Mike's sections in particular seemed to cover some basics, and then leap to his advanced personal preferences, without pausing at the oh-so-important "Intermediate" level.

Overall Rating...

In the final analysis, I felt that this book lacked any spark of real enlightenment. I was left neither particularly inspired, instructed or entertained. Two webs.

Footnote...

Given the similar failure of Writing and Illustrating the Graphic Novel (rated 1.5 webs), I have to ask the question if in fact it is truly possible to write a good "How To Create... [Art, Movies, Comics... Anything Artistic]"

Perhaps we need to accept that if you possess enough talent, instinct and motivation to succeed as an artist in any specific domain, then a general purpose hand-holding "How To" book that attempts to cover every aspect of the subject is, a priori, too simplistic.

Or maybe I've just been unlucky so far. Maybe there are some good "How To" books out there for comic creators, and I just haven't come across them yet. But rest assured, I'll keep looking for you.