Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review: Adventures in Cartooning

Adventures in Cartooning is a fun and creative book by James Sturm and two of his graduates from the Center for Cartoon Studies, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost, and published by First-Second.

It is designed as a how-to create comics book, though the lessons almost wholly come in narrative form as the Magic Cartooning Elf and other characters discuss the properties of comic creation while carrying out a simple and fun story. The book is aimed largely at children, and the humor reflects it (though did make me laugh aloud at parts — particularly the "Warning" on the back cover, which is just the sort of thing to get kids to pick it up).

Most of the overt instruction is fairly simple — things like what is a panel, how text can enrich images, orders of word bubbles, and the nature of different graphic devices like motion lines or dotted panel borders. The last several pages of the book also contain sections on cartooning basics that make explicit several of the lessons as well as some additional instruction.

However, because most of the instruction comes narratively, there ends up being only a limited amount of things instructed. This is a shame, because several techniques the authors use are very clever, elegant, and well worth instructing learners if they don't notice them.

For example, in one section the characters climb and then descend a mountain. On the climb, the three small square panels of the page are positioned climbing upwards left-to-right so that the line of the mountain-side is retained, while the opposite configuration occurs for the descent. On another page the characters sink down into water, with the length of the panel growing away from the top of the page in each panel to show falling deeper and deeper.

These are fun, simple, and effective techniques that comic creators can put to great use, though without the explicit instruction I fear they might be lost by less observant readers. Perhaps allowing for some additional non-narrative instruction would allow for even more of these aspects to be brought out explicitly. It would be easy to do this with the little labels and arrows used on the cover (which appear nowhere else in the book), or with the Elf character hovering outside the panels to point things out as well.

(On the flipside, I can understand why the authors might feel they just want to give kids the basics and not overwhelm them with too many concepts, though I'm inclined to think kids can handle it).

Additionally, I greatly liked how much of the book was carried out without text and the implications that text is only used to enrich visuals. This subtly reinforces the development of the visual language grammar in learning — which is no doubt the intent.

Overall, the book is a good read and would likely be a useful tool for helping young creators get on their way to creating graphic stories.

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