In this new book with Tim Pilcher, Dave Gibbons teaches the production practices behind his acclaimed comics creations.
There can be few people more qualified to teach the craft of comics creation than Dave Gibbons. Since starting in underground comics in the 1970s he has done it all. Present at the dawn of 2000 AD, lead artist on Doctor Who Weekly, co-creator of Watchmen with Alan Moore and Kingsman: Secret Service with Mark Millar, prolific contributor to Marvel and DC, and so on, his is a career best defined in pictures, and those pictures are award-winning.
In How Comics Work, a collaboration with comics and pop culture expert Tim Pilcher, Gibbons’ illustrious career of writing, drawing and designing graphic literature is laid out in scripts, sketches and finished artwork as a lesson in how to build a story from nothing.
The title is deceptive, suggesting a breakdown of form and the language of sequential art in the manner of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Instead, Gibbons and Pilcher offer a specific and practical methodology for the production of a comic book, split into chapters for each stage, or job, and heavily illustrated with Gibbons’ own work as examples.
No words were minced in the making of this book and we are dropped right into chapter one with the slightest of introductions from Pilcher, who has collated all the information and provides captions connecting Gibbons’ instruction to the images. The first step is the development of ideas and the gradual transformation of those ideas into a script.
These early pages aren’t representative of the whole, and anyone looking to study scriptwriting in any detail will need resources beyond the intentions of this book. Gibbons favours the mind map as a method of finding a story’s theme and massaging it into a three-act structure. He then uses index cards to pace the plot against the pages of the comic before writing the script.
Nothing revolutionary – although fans can find titillation in the inclusion of Gibbons’ first pitch ideas for The Originals – but, while initially underwhelming for those who have read thousands of texts on how to write, it soon becomes clear that the process is presented in as straightforward and precise a way as the abstract notion of nurturing an idea can be.
What we learn about Gibbons from this beginning is that his luminary career didn’t just appear in some romantic spark of genius. It was constructed by the hard work of figuring out the minutiae of the medium and developing a system of rules for a clean narrative, where every aspect of the book is in service to the story.
Many of these rules are easy to apply, such as not using more than 200 words on a page, or more than two lines of dialogue per word balloon. This kind of tight instruction makes the medium accessible, and the book really shines in the later chapters that detail the process of inking, colouring and lettering because of the practical procedures and clear examples.
Known mostly for his work as an artist, Gibbons’ writing skills should never be underestimated. The 200 words on a page rule could well have been applied to this book, with each lesson delivered in short, punchy paragraphs that leave no room for misinterpretation.
As a bonus to the “how to” portion of the book – which includes exercises for developing writers and artists in the final chapter – Gibbons also lists his influences in each sector of comics production, illustrating the various roots from which his own methodology grew. They are, naturally, mostly white men, but the exhibition of these mentors adds a sense of history to the book that could make it useful for a more general reader or fan.
There are times when Gibbons will tell a detailed story about how he produced a comic and the accompanying illustrations are of something else entirely, but for the most part the visual curation of his body of work illuminates his lessons, and in other circumstances How Comics Work could double for a biography of an important career.
For more on the making of this book, read our interview with Dave Gibbons.