Review by Graham Johnstone
Mark Crilley has three million subscribers for his ‘How to Draw…’ videos on YouTube. He’s also produced books on drawing, as well as graphic novels, and merged the two for his previous book The Drawing Lesson. So The Comic Book Lesson, seems a logical next step.
Subtitled ‘A Graphic Novel That Shows You How to Make Comics’, it does exactly that. Of course there have been earlier comics about comics (see Related Reviews, below), but they’ve typically been lectures delivered in comics form. Crilley offers a graphic novel in the stricter sense of a book-length fictional narrative.
That narrative is young Emily’s quest to make comics. In the opening pages she walks into a comic shop, sees books on drawing superheroes and the like, and asks the clerk if they have any books on how to actually make comics. With the welcome improbability of fiction, that clerk is Trudy, a high school student and budding comics creator. She gives Emily an impromptu lesson in the language of comics. After a further lesson, Trudy introduces Emily to a small press creator, then a professional, so continuing Emily’s progression towards a neat ending. This progression through levels should also make the story relatable for anyone who’s grown up with computer games. Emily’s own story idea of a ‘Pet Finder,’ sets-up a later reveal, explaining her personal need to tell that story. So the lessons are credibly woven into a novel, which also models the development of a story, so providing a useful complement to those lessons.
Crilley’s lessons are not lectures, but dialogues – a way of learning through question and answer that dates back to ancient Greece. Because this is a comic, we also see Emily’s efforts to apply each lesson, the teachers’ feedback on those efforts, and then Emily’s revised pages. Emily’s questions and resulting pages, suggest an implausibly bright learner, but that’s reasonable bending of reality that maximises learning for the reader.
The lessons start with creating a few panels, then build up to longer sequences, on the way, taking in character design, settings, dialogue, and emotions. Crilley and his fictional teachers, both tell and show, for example taking Emily to an antiques yard to explore creating an environment in comics form. Similarly, a lesson in a café involves a disagreement with the manager that neatly dramatises the lesson about facial expressions. There’s a huge amount of ideas and advice packed into this small, accessible book.
Crilley is a versatile artist, as demonstrated by his range of YouTube drawing lessons. Here, though, he uses clear Manga-style cartooning. It’s rendered in a sketchy pencil-style that may frustrate lovers of comics’ traditional ink art. However, the pencil art reveals the process of drawing – sketching then refining shapes and lines, so further adding to the overall lesson. The pencils are over-painted in some drab autumn shades. That palette may reflect a wider swing against comics’ luridly coloured origins. Nevertheless, it sacrifices visual appeal, and the opportunity to strengthen the other lessons, for example by using colour to distinguish characters and settings, and to reinforce emotion. Crilley’s art here may win some readers and lose others, but overall it supports his lessons well.
By weaving learning situations into an appealing narrative, and showing Emily’s work stage-by-stage, Mark Crilley has created a fresh twist on the comic about making a comic. It’s an accessible book that will suit people who prefer to learn by doing. It is child friendly, but look beyond that and there’s plenty to learn here for adults who’ve already made comics.