It seems hard to believe these days, but back in 1977 there was not a single book on the market to provide guidance to any budding comic book artists.
In fact, despite the fact that individual comic issues sold in more numbers than today, they were still desperately under-represented in every other way. Classic comic books had yet to realise their massive value as collectibles, Todd McFarlane was yet to become a superstar, and a the first truly successful comic-book movie "Superman" was still a year away in December 1978.
But one company was doing more than its fair share to raise the wider profile and acceptance of comic books. Marvel Comics under the guidance of Stan Lee was pushing to have comic books recognized as "not just for kids", with his appeal to college students and his demands for increasing sophistication of plot and character.
Meanwhile, Marvel artist emeritus "Big" John Buscema was breaking new ground by setting up the John Buscema Art School, running classes specifically for comic book artists. This was a privately run school, which advertised in the pages of Marvel comics — Universities at that time were still far from ready to accept the idea of comic book art as a suitable subject for college study.
John launched his school in 1975. It was successful, boosted no doubt by the occasional class visit by his pal and colleague Stan Lee. A couple of years later, Stan persuaded John that it would be a great idea to produce a book to allow the whole world to get their hands on the ideas and lessons that were currently restricted to a lucky few. The result was this classic work, "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way", published in hardback December 1977 (copyright 1978) by Simon and Schuster.
The book would become hugely popular, and was followed by an 1984 paperback "Fireside Books" re-release in much greater numbers.
The book features twelve chapters:
Each chapter is roughly ten pages long and features plenty of black and white artwork specifically drawn by John Buscema, along with other examples from Marvel comics.
The text appears to be provided by both Stan and John. They have quite distinctive writing styles, so it's pretty easy to see that the simple detailed descriptions about drawing technique are John's words, while Stan (in his extraordinary enthusiastic and inimitable fashion) has provided the general comments about comic books in general, about Marvel in specific, and also the chapter introductions and linking text.
The book is partly a "how to draw" primer, covering human form, perspective and the general process of building up an image in pencil and ink. But the book emphasizes the fact there are plenty of other "how to draw" books available, and then explicitly turns its attention on "how to draw a Marvel comic". It discusses the specific demands of comic book art - particularly the need for dynamicism, clarity of panel construction. And every step of the way, "Big" John's artwork is our unerring guide.
John is a brilliant artist. I am not. To see him start with a few deft lines, and then build a powerfully heroic figure from it... to me, it's just like seeing a magician at work on stage. I blink my eyes for a micro-second, and suddenly the box is no longer empty - a living, breathing human steps out. I just don't know how it's done. But somehow it does happen — and to those with even a modicum of talent, I believe that this book would have provided wonderful, wonderful guidance in its time (and even now).
More than that, it would have provided inspiration and support in an otherwise cold, empty world. To a kid with dreams of creating comic books, this would have been the first written proof that their dreams could come true - that the job of "comic book artist" really did exist. Up until then, it could equally have been the case that Santa's Elves drew comic books during their spare time when they had time off from the toy factories. For the first time, this book explained to the general public how comic art was created, and what made it special and different from boring old "fine art drawing".
Sure, eight years later (in 1985), Will Eisner: Comics & Sequential Art would raise the bar significantly, with a book that went beyond the mere process of drawing to talk about how art and text were woven together to form panels, pages and stories. And yes, a decade later Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics would provide an academic analysis which went even deeper into the innermost workings of the comic book form.
But to criticize "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" for not covering more subject matter is like complaining about the poor choice of in-flight movies in the Apollo 11 space capsule. John and Stan truly broke new ground with this book which even now is a must-have guide for anybody with the ambition to illustrate a comic book.
I dare not give it less than the full five webs.
I believe Marvel's approach to comic books in the 1970's had four key elements by which it proudly separated itself from the distinguished competition. They were:
For better or for worse, "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" covered only the first of those four points. This is John's drawing course, and Stan clearly worked within the subject matter provided. It would be another thirty-three years until Stan Lee (with considerable assistance) would produce his pair of books Stan Lee's How to Write Comics and Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics in 2011.