posted 5.17.2010

Drawing a comic book is a peculiar craft. Doing a good job at it means tackling a number of problems that you might not find in other media.

A whopper of a problem is overcoming the static nature of the form itself. Probably the biggest enemy the comic book artist faces is time. A filmmaker has absolute control over how long you linger on an image, how long you stay with a character. A novelist can slow you down with words. You’ve gotta read the words one at a time. Of course, video machines with fast-forward buttons provide a cheat for the lazy movie watcher, and any fiend can skip ahead to the end of a mystery novel, but, if you play by the rules, the storyteller in either of these forms is the boss of time. You’re at his mercy. In a comic book, the relatively scant number of words can be read in seconds, and the pictures, which have to convey information immediately or lose the reader just as fast, can be skipped over as quickly as the pages of one of those silly little flip-books they sell at bookstore counters. How, then, to get the reader to linger?

Novice comic book artists often try to imitate film, moving the characters ever-so-slowly, breaking a single action into endless, nearly identical images, each image changed from the last only incrementally, inch by tedious inch. That approach usually belly-flops, only reminding the reader that he’s looking at static images, showing everybody, in no uncertain terms, that movies move, and comics don’t. Novice comic book writers, on the other hand, simply pile on the words, robbing the form of its energy and vitality, often unintentionally insulting the reader by cluttering the drawing with descriptions of the drawing, making either the pictures or the words irrelevant, and boring the reader to distraction. Still, you gotta find a way to slow the reader down without boring him, or, worst of all, confusing him. A confusing comic book hits the trash can or recycling bin faster than junk mail.

How, then? How to make a comic book something more than a puny imitation of film, or worse, wannabe prose with a bunch of drawings that don’t belong there? What is it that gives certain comics an appeal unlike any other medium? Why can some cartoonists get you to spend just the right stretch of moments, just long enough, on each drawing? Skipping past the dirty tricks of the trade, since cartoonists have to keep their secrets, the best and most legitimate way to get the all-powerful reader to surrender his power over time is to seduce the reader. To charm the reader. We are, after all, pleasure-driven creatures, pulled toward what charms us. We don’t hurry past what charms us.

A good comic book artist plays to the strengths of the form, and one of comics’ chief appeals is that they are drawn by hand. The artist’s personality is felt. Comics drawn in slavish imitation of photography are almost as bad as those awful fumettis occasionally produced, despite all good sense, in Europe, those pasted-up things that are the worst and dumbest and most joyless corruption of the artform imaginable. They’ve got all the charm of a low-budget porn movie, and all of the verve of a high school yearbook. The hand of the artist should be visible, making its judgments, picking what is important, exaggerating the essential and discarding the irrelevant. Cartoon art is the craft of reuniting the word and the picture, using the drawing itself as communication more than as cold representation. Done with skill and wit and economy, cartoon art charms the eye. The eye wants to linger on the physical gesture, that piece of shrubbery, that funky old beat-up wagon pulled by cows. The six deft brush strokes that compose a figure stimulate the mind, making the reader fill in the blanks, now an eager, active participant in the storytelling. Properly wined and dined, the reader settles down and takes the story at the pace the cartoonist intended.