Scott McCloud wrote his masterpiece, Understanding Comics, at the age of 33, and isn't likely to surpass it. This complete aesthetic theory in a friendly cartoon format catapulted him out of the comics ghetto and into respectability. It's probably inevitable that his other non-fiction books, Reinventing Comics and now Making Comics, read like supplements rather than new revelations. But there's nothing dishonorable in spending a lifetime exploring the land one discovers in one's youth, and in Making Comics, McCloud gives the industry one of its best how-to manuals, along with a flurry of exercises to spark creativity. And as with his best work, the core insights of Making Comics have application far beyond the realm of funny-books.

McCloud's plaid-jacketed alter ego has aged since Reinventing Comics, with its gee-whiz wonderment at the potential for comics online. He's acquired a paunch and graying temples. And he's more interested in the nitty-gritty of comics (and narrative art in general): stories. Tutorials on how to plot them, populate them with characters, structure them on the page, choose angles and points of view, and marry their words and pictures take up most of the book. Yet because McCloud is really a theorist and not an art-school instructor, this is about as far from How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way as Krazy Kat is from Tippy the "Draw Me!" Turtle. And for all his tinkering with art-class tools (spending what the non-artist will consider excessive attention on the interplay of facial muscles), he always hews to his true north: erasing the distance between story and reader.

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Making Comics won't change the minds of McCloud's detractors; it's still the work of an artist who's no Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, or Chris Ware. But ironically for someone so in love with the potential of narrative comics, McCloud has found in these non-fiction books the place where his talents burn brightest. It isn't just the ideas that are captivating, it's the bold, black-and-white graphic design of his pages. He's teaching not only panel to panel, but line by line.