Cartooning: Philosophy & Practice

Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning Philosophy and Practice is published by Yale University Press. Brunetti combines a lovely spare drawing style with an occasionally overwrought writing style. I do dearly love this little book, but at times find his writing style infuriating.


Brunetti’s prose slips into and out of quotation marks, parenthesis, often for no clear reason. I felt I was hearing a “sermon” and the minister (randomly) switched to a parrot’s “voice” every now and “then.” I am exaggerating slightly. Here is an actual sentence from Brunetti’s introduction:

With writing, I do not give the “form” any thought at all, since writing comes more naturally then drawing for me (I am a windbag by nature) and I could not a adopt a “style” even if I tried; however, with drawing, I still feel that I am confusedly “building” something by trial and error.

Brunetti’s illustrations, on the other hand, are a clean and spare. He has drawn for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and even for Scooby-Doo. He edited a “scholarly” (now, he’s got me doing it!) two-volume anthology of the modern masters of comics for Yale Press.

2010 cover © Ivan Brunetti,  New Yorker.
2010 cover © Ivan Brunetti, New Yorker.

Cartooning Philosophy and Practice is a worthwhile text for a comics class at the high school or college level. It is the winner of the 2012 Will Eisner Award in the best book in the Academic category.

The text reviewed here last week Drawing Words/Writing Pictures is a much bigger, more comprehensive book and includes work from lots of artists. Brunetti’s Cartooning is a pocket-sized book that is illustrated exclusively with his own drawings. Comparing the two volumes is like comparing a Hummer limo to a Fiat.

From the YouTube video, link below © Ivan Brunetti
From the YouTube video, (link below) © Ivan Brunetti 2012

If I had to pick one cartooning book to smuggle into a prison or carry on a road trip it would be Brunetti’s. His idiosyncratic voice either grows on you, or it doesn’t. (Ok, it grew on me.) His lessons are clear and good. To get a better idea of his style visit the Yale Press page where Brunetti shares one of his cartooning exercises in a brief video.

By the Books: How to Make Comics

dwwpcoverThere are a handful of good books that will help the motivated student succeed at becoming a cartoonist. Drawing Words and Writing Pictures may be the best of the lot. This is an ideal text for a 15-week class in comics. It also has guidance for starting an informal collective class. It includes DIY suggestions for the stereotypical solitary artist, who the authors are gracious enough to refer to as ronin. There is a wealth of info on the narrative process, page design, lettering, pens, and even Photoshop scanning advice.

La Perdida © Jessica Abel, a thriller set in Mexico City.
La Perdida © Jessica Abel, a thriller set in Mexico City.

The book contains the perspectives from two remarkable artists, a gifted husband and wife team.  Matt Madden is into “formalist” styles, working within Houdini-like constraints. Jessica Abel‘s La Perdida is one of the great masterpieces of the long-form graphic novel. From George Herriman to Robert Crumb, Charles Burns, to Kaz and John Porcillino, the book is crammed with a diversity of styles. Wide-ranging and inclusive, no matter what one’s preferred comics style, from manga to superhero to alternative, you will find something to like here.


In 2012 Abel and Madden created a second book: Mastering Comics. It has more info on color and web comics and up-to-date information about publishing and professional practices. The authors, who have both taught at SVA, have created a super web site:, that serves as a resource for teachers and students. The site is especially valuable if you live in a part of world where can’t get your hands on their books. For an example of its riches, check out their instructions on how to make the mini-mini-comic they call a “foldy.”

mc-bookScott McCloud’s Making Comics  came before the above books. McCloud’s 1994 Understanding Comics was  groundbreaking, a thoughtful overview of the field. McCloud’s books are also useful texts for serious students who have some background in thinking critically about the art form. Right now (Jan. 2013) Amazon has special deal, you can get both of the Drawing Words/ Writing Picture books plus a copy of McCloud’s Making Comics for $61.49. The set would make a good core for any comics creator’s library. That’s 3 books for less than I paid for my used Spanish textbook. There are a few more good books on comics that I will get to next week.

Comics MFA? There is an alternative… No Joke.

Back in the ’80’s, when I told my pal Putka I was getting an MFA in illustration, he laughed, “What’s next?  -a Phd in Wallpaper Hanging?” What’s Next? Looks like the answer is Advanced Comics…

The SAW campus © SAW 2012
The SAW campus © SAW 2012

Stanford is a great university with one respected graphic novel class. But suddenly, universities across the country are offering complete advanced degrees in comics. CCS, the Center for Cartoon Studies, in Vermont has offered a Comics MFA for several years. CCS is not to be confused with CCA, California College of the Arts in San Francisco which is launching a new low-residency MFA in Comics in 2013.

A curious new educational option has sprung up in Florida. It is called SAW for Sequential Art Workshop. Cartoonist Tom Hart who taught for a decade at SVA in NYC has relocated to a storefront on So. Main St. in Gainesville. There, with a group of dedicated faculty and students, he has begun an intensive comics course. SAW’s one-year intensive program is not an accredited MFA, but it cost far less, $3600.

Student show at Saw, August, 2012, used with permission.
Student show at Saw, August, 2012, used with permission.

A student told me this, “Another reason I chose SAW over a degree program is that SAW is very inexpensive, but provides the opportunity to work with really amazing faculty. And though there’s no degree, I believe that in the art world your portfolio is more important than having a degree. So the quality of the education is more important than the diploma.”

Any advice for young artists interested in making zines and comics?
Same student, who now wishes to be anonymous: “Do just that – make zines and comics! Make them and get them out into the world. Trade them with other creators, go to conventions, put them online – get your work out there. And, even more importantly, keep making work. It can get discouraging when it feels like no one is listening, but you just have to keep on going. Don’t get too hung up on your early work, either – your first comics probably won’t be great, so finish them and move on. Set goals by the project. If you make a mistake or don’t like the way it’s turning out, finish the project and then try not to make that mistake in your next one – but don’t get discouraged. Also, even if you think you are going to draw in the most flat, cartoony style, still take the time to learn traditional art skills because your drawing can always benefit from them. If you don’t want to go to a traditional art school, look for local figure drawing sessions or evening classes taught by local artists. Or, better yet, apply to SAW! “

Indie alternatives to institutional higher education in the arts deserve support. Non-credit, off-the-grid, DIY art education centers are popping up all over. Tom Huck’s Woodcut Bootcamp in St. Louis, Maine’s Beehive Design Collective and Pittsburgh’s Cyberpunk Apocalypse are a few examples I’ve seen. I hope to see more. SAW has a fundraising Etsy page with original art by Vanessa DavisDash Shaw, John Porcellino and other important comics artists. Check it out.

César Chávez: Drawing on Clay, Printing with Glass

"Un Gran Consejo"or "Great Advice," César Chávez, 2011
“Un Gran Consejo” or “Great Advice,” César Chávez, 2011

Our 2011 visiting artist César Chávez of Oaxaca, Mexico left a great impression on Kutztown University. He also left a number of plates.

El Chamuco drawn by Cesar Chavez.
“El Chamuco”  by César Chávez, 2011.

Ceramics Prof Jim Chaney formed a half-dozen red clay plates, then iced them with a coat of white slip, or diluted clay. He invited César to the ceramics studio to draw. Prof Chaney speaks some Spanish and once did a ceramics workshop at the University of Azuay in Ecuador. Even though César spent most of his time at Kutztown in the printmaking studio, he was happy to spend one very productive afternoon in the ceramics studio.

"Mescal" by Cesar Chavez 2011
“Mescal” César Chávez, 2011

César is a happy fellow who often draws moody, morbid sketches of the human condition. The plate above suggests mescal, Oaxaca’s agave-based alcohol is “Good for Nothing and Good for Everything.”

"Mojado" by César Chávez
“Mojado” by César Chávez, 2011

Interestingly enough, César is back in Mexico and working in another new material, glass. He has been working with artist Jason Pfohl who founded the international art glass and jewelry studio, Gorilla Glass, in Oaxaca. César’s one-man show “Peste” (Pestilence) opened at Gorilla Gallery this week. He is printing multiple impressions from etched and melted glass. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. César is also continuing his ongoing experiments in computer animation and image projection.

César Chávez, photo  courtesy of Gorilla Gallery
César Chávez, photo courtesy of Gorilla Gallery, Oaxaca, Mexico

César told Gena Mejia of the Imparcial newspaper that he is excited by the infinite possibilities of working in glass. It appears fragile, but can be a strong and very versatile material. If you can read Spanish the full story can be found here. César Chávez is an inspiring artist, a 21st century renaissance man, always searching for new materials in pursuit of his artistic vision.


When Museums Cohabitate.

Batman, detail, original art by Tommy Castillo.

I was sorry to hear of MoCCA’s near-death experience. I’ve met some interesting people at the Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art in lower Manhattan. I ran into Prof. Bill Foster there, the expert on the portrayal of African-Americans in comics. He came to Kutztown to share his presentation, “Looking for a Face Like Mine.”

Underworld © KAZ (Kazimieras G. Prapuolenis)

Last summer MoCCA went broke and closed its doors overnight. MoCCA scrambled for a refuge to “transfer their assets”  and keep the name alive. The call was answered by the venerable Society of Illustrators. The MoCCA collection moved uptown to the townhouse walls at the Society of Illustrators, 128 E.63rd St.

Anelle Miller & Dennis Dittrich of the Society of Illustrators.

I was at the 2012 Educator’s Symposium at the Society and met Dennis Dittrich, President, and Anelle Miller, Executive Director, and asked about the MoCCA adoption process. Dennis, whose own humorous illustration style leans toward the cartoony, loves the new acquisitions. He told me the merger happened so fast, “it turned on a dime” and he felt like “a blacksmith on the freeway entrance.”

Homage to Norman Rockwell © R Sikoryak for the Comics Journal

Dennis and Anelle consulted attorneys to make sure MoCCA’s liabilities would not haunt their organization. The merger still needs final approval from the NY Board of Regents. I knew the NY State Board or Regents was responsible for universities, but Anelle explained the Regents’ mandate also includes museums and other non-profits.

MoCCA Hellboy © Mike Mignola

What’s in it for the Society?  Wonderful original artwork from comic books, comics strips, and gag cartoons. Dennis says an unexpected benefit is the new blood of MoCCA’s passionate fan base. The Society is now hosting “Dare to Draw” and Super Hero Sketch classes. Pros are teaching Penciling and Anatomy for Cartoonists. Anelle confirmed that MoCCA fest, the hip NY indy comics con, will happen April 6 & 7, 2013 at the Fighting 69th’s Armory on Lexington Ave. Unlike ComicCon, which is slick and leans toward shameless film promotion, MoCCA fest is the real deal. At MoCCA fest you can still find diamonds in the rough, from Norse graphic novels and Pittsburgh zines to thesis projects from the Center for Cartoon Studies.

The MoCCA Gallery area at Society of Illustrators

The New York Times called the Society of Illustrators one of NY’s five hidden gems. Now they have Batman, Wolverine, and Hellboy originals on the wall. The Society’s Museum of American Illustration may be one of NY’s last free-admission museums. Hours and directions can be found here. I was delighted to see the crackpot strips of my old Hoboken neighbor, Kaz, on the wall. His artwork reminded me of the first time I saw original illustration with my own eyes at the Society of Illustrators. I was so relieved to see eraser marks and retouching with white paint that I was able to get back to the drawing board.

Photo courtesy Society of Illustrators.

Find more info on MoCCA and The Society of Illustrators here.

Rare Birds of Lore

Out of the blue I got a note about Ryan and Audrey Durney’s Birds of Lore” Kickstarter project. I was impressed enough by this couple’s fantasy illustration project to become a low-level backer. I emailed them a few questions and asked to share some of their art here. 

Q. Other than Leo and Diane Dillon I can’t think of many husband/wife illustration teams.  What are the rewards of this creative partnership?

Ryan: My favorite thing about it, is that we speak the same language, even if we don’t always agree on things about the field. And, we sit right beside each other, sipping coffee and sketching and riffing off of each other’s direction and discovered influences. Sometimes, critiques get precarious-they can be given too early, or too late! But, it’s really rewarding to be in the same boat.  …we’ve rarely ever gotten to work on a complete idea together, which is one reason for the Kickstarter.

Mexican CU bird sketch © 2012 Audrey Durney

Q: Where did you two meet, the Kickstarter video says art school, but what art school?

Ryan: We met and fell in love at Columbus College of Art & Design. Back then CCAD  was like “military art school” they purposely overloaded you-so I don’t know how we even had time to date!? CCAD did a lot to prepare me for a career as an illustrator. However, at the time about half of the staff was anti-digital art, and I have a lot of bitter memories of instructors knocking my grade down just because I did assignments on the computer-meanwhile, I had been up all night at KINKOS trying to get one stupid final to print correctly!

Q: Can you tell me something about the CCAD illustration program, maybe a favorite prof, or most important class?

Ryan: Mr. Stewart McKissick was probably the most influential instructor for me. He really cared about preparing us for the real world, and he even forged a class where we competed against each other for real, paying assignments. I remember winning 2 of the 3. That was the kind of confidence boost I sorely needed so near to graduation. Audrey’s favorite was Ms. Tam Peterson for her energy and enthusiasm.

Q. Have you had some success freelancing illustration?

Ryan: Both Audry and I have won some awards and earned some respectable commissions. I make a modest living, with some good years -feast and famine, I suppose, but I’ve been happy doing it for over a decade. It’s really true that you just keep getting better and evolving. Audrey has taken a more stable road, working as a technical illustrator by day and freelancing via an agency at night, -tough but way more practical. My one complaint about making a living this way is the level at which freelancers are taxed. Also, illustration agents take the highest % of any creative endeavor, including music, acting, etc. at 25%, and art is one of the lowest in compensation. 

Q. Why Kickstarter vs. traditional publishing?

We can keep and manage the rights to our own work, and we get to finish a creative endeavor without corporate edits. I believe this brings the book much closer to an actual work of art. It’s being written and illustrated by unfettered artists, from start to finish. This is what the storytellers of olde did.

The Wila, or Vila, or Veela of Polish folklore. © 2012 Ryan Durney

Q. Who drew the Harpy (top image) and the Wila?

Ryan:  I did both the “Captive Harpy” and the “Wila.” I’m pleased with both. The Harpy is the more popular of those two (based on viewer feedback.) With the Wila, I tried to integrate pen-and-ink within the 3D. Sometimes that meant actually sculpting “ink-like” lines into the mesh, and sometimes that meant adding ink touches. That’s why you can see me using pens in the video. I’m 3D, but definitely experimental. I love mixing hand and digital media. The other thing about the Wila is that I was completely taken by an old etching. The Wila is homage to a very old engraving by Anton Eisenhoit (see below). Before anyone thinks it, yes-I agree that his original is better!

Q. Who did the little yellow bird blowing the horn, the Hercina?

Ryan: Audrey did the “Hercinia” bird, which is equally enjoyed by all. She  is a master of vector work and using Painter with vectors. Audrey and I are tilting our illustration styles in a few different directions, depending on what there is to say about each bird. The Hercinia is a direct homage to medieval bestiary art.

Note: As always: all art © the original artists. See a more Birds of Lore on the Kickstarter site. I have a hunch this project will fly.

Nate’s New Graphic Novel is Free, but You Can Buy It!

Pittsburgh cartoonist Nate McDonough’s graphic novel Don’t Come Back is quite interesting. It is nightmarish and convoluted in a good way. There are falling angels, dogs peeing in a cemetery, and one screaming chicken demon in the pizza box. There is death and resurrection. Don’t worry about me spoiling the ending. I’m not sure I figured it out. Another fascinating thing about Don’t Come Back  – All 160 pages are available online Free! Here, the entire book, Nate’s gift.

Nate raised over $700 on Kickstarter to get this project in print. In 2011 Publisher’s Weekly reported that was the third largest source of indy graphic novels in the U.S. Today it looms even larger. Yet Kickstarter is not a publisher, but a funding site that savvy entrepreneurs and artists use to essentially pre-sell creative projects of all kinds. I’ve contributed modest sums to 7 Kickstarter ventures.

Fresh from the printer, first editions of Don’t Come Back.

Full disclosure: Nate is a close friend of my son Daniel. Incredibly, I first met Nate, by chance, as he and I were gassing up at a Sheetz in Wheeling, West Virginia. Nate popped the trunk of his red 2005 Chevy cobalt and gave me a pile of his monthly zine, Grixly.

Have Coffee with Nate: Yinz near Pittsburgh? Don’t miss the Release Party for DON’T COME BACK. Weds, May 30, 7:00pm at Copacetic Comics and Lili Coffee Shop in Polish Hill.  Here is your personal YouTube invitation. Even if you can’t make it, next time you are in Pittsburgh visit this great indy comic shop and great indy coffee shop.

Q & A with Nate McDonough.

Nate talks about his art education, Pittsburgh, his zine, and how Kickstarter worked for him. He talks frankly about the dollars and cents of the project and offers advice for aspiring comics artists. Interested in doing your own project?

To read the full Nate McDonough interview, click here…