How Comics Work
Writers: Dave Gibbons & Tim Pilcher
Cover artist: Gibbons
Editor: Angela Koo
Publisher: Wellfleet Press
Price: $24.99 US
While best known as the artist on the landmark Watchmen series (though most commonly read as a graphic novel collection for years now), Dave Gibbons has had and continues to enjoy a decades-spanning career, not only as a comics artist, but as an accomplished writer. He’s worked with and learned not only from the best writers the medium has known, but also from the best inkers, colorists, letterers and production people. So who better to guide readers through “how to” book on the craft of comics. The title of this paperback is a bit deceptive. While Gibbons and co-writer Tim Pilcher do touch on how the medium works overall, this book could have easily been titled How to Make Comics. It’s like a textbook, or even a manual on how to put a comic book together from scratch. From the first glimmer of an idea for a story to the printing press, Gibbons and Pilcher take us through the process. It should appeal not only to someone just starting out in the world of comics, but longtime fans of the medium.
Gibbons covers much more than comics script-writing and pencilling. Every facet of the creative process is covered here. One might expect to find plotting and panel layout here, and one does. But Gibbons covers so much more. He considers world-building and character guides. Honestly, I think he actually ends up covering in detail the massive amount of unpaid work that so many comics professionals do. While a writer is paid for a script and a penciller by the page, all of the character designs, unpublished backstory and pre-production processes are explored here. Gibbons makes is abundantly clear just how much work goes into building a successful career in this niche field.
How Comics Work actually ends up serving many other purposes than just a guide on the craft of comics. I was immediately struck by how it also stands as a wonderful retrospective on the artist’s long career in the field. Yes, we hear a lot about Watchmen, as he cites his own work frequently to serve as examples of what he’s talking about, but we see his early work in British comics publishing, his lesser-known, creator-owned stuff, and the books he wrote but didn’t draw.
The book also works as an overview of some comics history, or, at least, comics history that’s important to Gibbons. Specifically, he spotlights creative “stars” and major creative influences on his art and his view of what constitutes good comics. The most interesting one to me was his tribute to and exploration of the work of Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson. While I’d heard of the Brit-comics space hero many times before, I wasn’t aware of Hampson. It shows that even if one is thoroughly familiar with a myriad of aspects of the comics industry, one will find something new here, if not information, than perspectives.
Speaking of history, Gibbons and Pilcher explore comics production of the past, how coloring and lettering and other processes worked in the pre-digital age. They also detail the many technological changes in the last couple of decades. They delve into digital linework and digital coloring and the like, but also the nitty gritty of uploading files and how to prepare digital work for the printing process. That’s really what’s most impressive about the book: how incredibly comprehensive it is. Gibbons and Pilcher leave no stone unturned, delving into digital coloring and flats, into book design, even how to deal with a wraparound cover and how the spine displays. 8/10
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