“Our Goal Is to Create an Audience That’s Not There Yet”: An Interview with Jessica Abel and Matt Madden

Mastering Comics

As comics has slowly gained more respectability and prestige in both mainstream and academic culture, the notion of becoming a cartoonist for a living has grown to seem less like crazy talk and more like a viable career option, albeit a less than lucrative one. As a result, more and more high schools, colleges, and universities have begun incorporating how-to comics courses into their curriculum.

Two people at the forefront of this movement are Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. Both skilled and well-respected cartoonists in their own rights, the pair have been teaching comics at the School of Visual Arts for several years now, guiding would-be cartoonists through the dos and don'ts of assembling a picto-narrative. In 2008 they coalesced their theories and practical experience about the medium into the book Drawing Words, Writing Pictures. A textbook designed to be incorporated in classrooms, Drawing Words guided readers through the treacherous terrain of making comics, from basic terminology to structuring a story to using a brush and pencil.

Now Abel and Madden have published a sequel, Mastering Comics. Picking up where Drawing Words left off, Mastering attempts to cover a variety of disparate concepts, such as perspective, publishing on the Internet, coloring on the computer, and getting work published and into other people's hands. As with Words, it's an informative, thoughtful book that offers valuable advice and activities to any would-be cartoonist, full-time or otherwise.

I talked with Abel and Madden about the new book, as well as their work as editors of the Best American Comics series, their upcoming move to France, and the challenges of juggling work, marriage, and family.

This interview was conducted over the telephone in May and transcribed by Matt Burke and Anna Pederson.

MAUTNER: Was the intent for a sequel already there when you were writing Drawing Words & Writing Pictures? Did you see the need for a second book from the very beginning?

ABEL: Well, first we thought Drawing Words & Writing Pictures was going to be twice the size. We didn’t know how long it was gonna be. Our intention was to do a thirty-chapter book [laughs]. Then we realized how long each chapter was going to be, and how intensive it was going to be. Then I had this brainstorm -- one of the few brainstorms Matt approves of. Usually my brainstorms mean lots more work for both of us [laughter]. My brainstorm was, "Let’s cut this thing in half and do another one." And he was like, "Ah! A brainstorm I can finally get behind!"

MADDEN: That was an amazing day [laughter]. The perspective chapter in Mastering Comics was going to be in the first book—what else?

ABEL: A lot of the stuff [in Mastering Comics] was planned [early on] but not actually executed. There would be rough, sketchy paragraphs: "This is gonna be about this."

MADDEN: We set the later material aside; the perspective chapter was supposed to be in the first book but we realized it wouldn’t fit so we pushed it back to the next one, which gave us a whole bunch of new stuff to do for the first book. At that point it became a de facto two-volume project, and we didn’t have that agreement explicitly with [publisher] First Second; we only had the one book contracted.

ABEL: We talked to them about it at that time and they were like, "That sounds good. That’s a good idea."

MADDEN: So that wasn’t a problem at all.

MAUTNER: Was the original plan to do it as a textbook? Or did that change too?

ABEL: Oh yeah, absolutely.

MADDEN: Yeah, that’s exactly the book we set out to do.

MAUTNER: You deal with such a wide variety of topics and issues. Were there subjects you were unfamiliar with or were difficult for you in any way to try and articulate?

ABEL: You mean, where did we stretch, basically?

MAUTNER: What did you come to fresh?

ABEL: Well, certainly we were trying to figure out a way to talk about [perspective] and write about it, definitely we came to that fresh. We did a lot of research. Matt spent three months drawing those damn cars. And it also really helped me figure out how to talk about perspective in class. The way we teach perspective now has to do with coming to an understanding of how perspective can place a reader in relation to characters, and how that bears on storytelling. Shortcuts are fine, but we want students to think about how putting characters in space has a storytelling function.

Talking with students who aren’t getting it, it’s really tough. Getting them to understand that idea in a classroom situation is a lot easier than getting them to understand how perspective works from the abstract point of view like, "Here's how you lay out these lines." Who cares about the lines, what difference do the lines make? Once we started thinking about it dynamically and integrated it in our teaching, it became a better chapter because of that.

MAUTNER: Tell me more about the research you did. Did you find yourself going to unfamiliar areas or going outside of comics at all, in order to research material for this book?

ABEL: Both. For example, we’re not webcartoonists, so trying to talk about the webcomics world -- I mean we know how to make stuff digital, we know how to do that, but figuring out what the rules are, how do people think about webcomics ... we actually had a man who’s interning for an intensive period do a bunch of research on that, Matt Huynh. He went out and read all these things …

MADDEN: ... Blogs, message boards and FAQs and whatever, just trying to find anything …

ABEL: … and compile.

MADDEN: There was that book …

ABEL: How To Make Webcomics. Which is really quite a good book. It’s not really about how to make webcomics, it’s about how to be a webcartoonist.

MAUTNER: Obviously your interest in teaching and your job as teachers helped form and influence this book but did the reverse happen? Did writing the book change the way you teach?

ABEL: It’s a very dynamic process, doing the two of them. As you start thinking about a topic or write about it, it’s present in your mind in a way that it wouldn’t be otherwise. So you end up incorporating it almost unconsciously into your class and then the response the students have to it becomes a part of what you do in your writing. It’s a back and forth. I became a much better teacher because of writing this stuff.

MADDEN: Yeah, the perspective chapter is a good example. It wasn’t until we sat down and were like, "How do we actually explain perspective in a useful way?" and the whole point is just "tell a story." If you’re a cartoonist, perspective is another storytelling tool and you just need to make figures in space clear to the viewer. So it’s a very obvious, simple statement, but most people never conceive it in that way. I see it when I explain that to students now, which is part of my standard rigamarole. They get all uptight about the fact that they’ve never learned perspective. You don't really need to know perspective, you just need it to put characters in a space that’s understandable to your readers. And depending on how you want to draw, you may not need perspective at all. And just that simple phrasing came out of wrestling with the actual nitty-gritty of writing about it and then standing back from it and saying, “What’s the take-away here?”

ABEL: Teaching writing, it’s really difficult in the context of our classes. It’s really difficult to teach explicitly.

MAUTNER: Why is that?

ABEL: There isn’t time. We’re trying to get through all of this stuff, all of the basics of cartooning – how to lay out a page, how to do lettering, how to make a thumbnail, how to whatever – and a lot of this stuff, we teach it somewhat Socratically. It happens in the context of critiques and so on. But we’re not drawing out and talking explicitly about principles of writing.

MADDEN: To interject, at SVA, we teach a fifteen-week semester of three-hour studio classes. Which sounds like a lot of time but it goes by really quickly and it’s usually barely enough. You take attendance, collect homework, and all of a sudden the class is halfway over. It’s very hard to get in-depth, especially when you’ve got a class of fifteen kids or more.

ABEL: Often our classes are in the twenty-student range and if you’re going to be critiquing a comic for each of those students, it’s gonna take the whole class period.

MADDEN: Jessica and I teach a full-year class together called "Storytelling" where a lot of the activities and ideas in the book either come from or are test-run there. But even in that class we never do a lesson on composition and things like that. That’s all stuff that has to come out inductively through the teaching process, where we can observe the individual panels. It’s another reason we wanted to have the book handy -- so you can have all this stuff written down and assign students to read it separately. That was one of our practical reasons for doing the book in the first place, for teachers to have all this extra stuff, all the real stuff there that in practice most of us don’t really get around to teaching in class.

ABEL: You can have the best intentions, but when it comes down to it, how are you going to do a writing lesson in the context of a comics class? It’s really difficult.

But having written about in our books puts it in the forefront of your mind when you’re talking to students and therefore you talk more explicitly about those issues to the students. You bring up stuff about sentence structure or foreshadowing or more explicit writing stuff when you have it in your mind.

MADDEN: It comes out more in a one-to-one individual critiquing basis rather than having a group lesson, per se.

MAUTNER: Early on in the book you used the term "atoms" to describe the changes in a scene, or the emotional changes in the scene.

ABEL: That’s kind of a flyer, I hope it works. [Laughs.]

MAUTNER: Where did you come up with that term?

ABEL: Just trying to think of a word for something, a word for that function.

MADDEN: Like a unit.

ABEL: I was trying to differentiate between writing film screenplays, which people might know something about, and comics, where it’s really different. You don’t think of a comic script in terms of beats, because a beat is often a lot longer than a panel. Atoms are a way of thinking about how you deal with change. The definition of an atom I think I give -- let's see if I can do it off the top of my head -- it's "a change in action, emotion, or purpose."

MAUTNER: That sounds right.

ABEL: The idea is, you can’t have a panel with four exchanges of dialogue in it, where the emotion of the dialogue changes, the characters change, but you don’t depict that. That is a break, you have to use that break. I was thinking about it initially in terms of adapting prose. When people try to adapt prose frequently there’s this kind of amorphousness to it and there ends up being long chunks of stuff -- narration or whatever -- and atoms are a way of translating those bits of narration to action. And in that "Atom" section, I give an example from some writing I’ve done: "There is no 'atom' here, this is all internal. So you have to create those atoms and figure out what they are." I’ve tried to teach it once or twice and I can’t say it was sparklingly successful so, again, I hope that it works for students. It might be too complex. I’m not really sure. The first book we’re pretty confident about almost everything in it, especially now, after years of having it out there. But we knew what we were doing, it was a lot of stuff that we’d done directly in class.

In this new book, there’s a lot of stuff that makes sense to us and it explains things that need explaining, but it’s not stuff that we have necessarily taught. And atoms are one of those things. It still makes sense but I have to figure out how to explain it and use it [in class], the activity is an involved one but I’ve never had time to do the entire activity all at once with one group.

MAUTNER: I get the feeling that you feel this really is an essential part of making comics to some regard. That being able to break your dialog or break your story down in this kind of manner …

ABEL: It absolutely is an essential part.

MAUTNER: … That it makes an essential difference.

ABEL: It does, but I’m not sure that I’m explaining it in a way that works. I think I am, but I think that my explanation is challenging because it’s actually a really challenging idea. The basic practice of it is challenging. We did the best we could to come up with a clear way of talking about it and our editor, who doesn’t read comics, understood it; it made sense to her. But it's not classroom tested and a lot of the book is like that.

MAUTNER: I wanted to ask about Chapter 6, the "Style Tells A Story" chapter. If I read it right, you seem to be saying that style is as much consciously developed as it is unconscious, which I thought was an interesting idea, one I haven't seen expressed before. I think the general notion is that your influences affect the way you draw in ways you don't see until many years down the road. Is that accurate?

MADDEN: I think so. The conventional take on it is that you can just draw your comics and the style will follow. I think that is basically true in many ways. In some ways you draw the way you do based on your training and then into your practice the stuff that influenced you in the first place, the physiology of your line, [comes out]. There are people who just draw pathologically neat, straight lines, and then there’s the Gary Panter, the ratty line of the spectrum. Those kind of things are hard-wired.

But I have been thinking over the years that there is a certain amount of nudging and pushing that people do as well. There are a lot of cartoonists that have a similar thing: They see some art and think, “Oh this is amazing. I want to start drawing like that,” and they start either actually tracing and re-drawing their drawings and trying to imitate that style or incorporate that into their vocabulary. We’re trying to forefront that a bit in this chapter and say, “Notice all these things about drawing style." And in terms of storytelling, too. Sometimes it’s a matter of choosing a particular style or a particular register of cartooning -- you’re realistic or it’s just all line work or using lots of black to tell a certain kind of story. And certainly in my personal work that’s something I do. Almost every story I do has a different visual style to it. At the same time I do have a base style. Sometimes my stuff looks all over the place but then people tell me they always recognize my drawings when they see them. We do have individual styles that tend to come through.

ABEL: I think Matt is an example of somebody, more than most people, who says, “This is malleable and it needs to be,” and he just makes the style whatever it needs to be for the story. It changes a lot but there is a base style there.

MAUTNER: But it's also based on the artist limitations or technical abilities. I used to overdraw constantly. I remember an art teacher telling me once, “Just try making a line and leaving it on the page and don’t redraw it.” And I found I literally could not do it. [Laughter.] I couldn’t not fuss with my drawing. I physically was compelled to do it because of my personality and who I am.

ABEL: That’s a really good example of something that does change. If you keep going with that you can make that transition to "not fussing."

MADDEN: You need to force yourself. You say, “I am this artist that just spoils every section of the page with little lines and cross-hatching marks." Or you make a concerted effort to whittle it away. There’s a great part in the David Mazzucchelli exhibit at MoCCA that was two or three summers ago. We’re friends with him -- he teaches at SVA -- and we got him to give us a docent tour with a bunch of students at the show. He was walking us through the Daredevil and Batman stuff, and showing how he was just like overdrawing everything; for years he was doing this stuff in that classic Marvel style.

ABEL: That was according to him. I mean, it still looked beautiful.

MADDEN: Nothing about quality. I’m talking about the density of marks on the page. And he trained himself very deliberately, and he actually showed us some pages that were transitional to the modern Mazzucchelli style, where you can see where he’s done all these hatch marks and feathering on the forms and he’d gone in with white and he’d erased it after he’d drawn it. It’s kind of like, letting himself do it and then taking it out. Eventually he transitioned to this more stark, Batman: Year One style. And from that to Asterios Polyp.

He’s a good example of that. I’m not saying it’s easier or it’s a, “Oh I’ll do this today,” kind of choice. But style is malleable. It’s something that is worth thinking about and being conscious of. Someone like Jason -- he’s someone who very deliberately chose the style he draws. If you’ve ever seen some of those early things from the '90s, he has them fully rendered. He found a style that is very simple, very direct, very efficient for telling a lot of stories very quickly. He’s stuck with that for years and it enables him to sell a huge variety of stuff, it’s a very flexible and rich style of drawing and storytelling. I’d actually like to think he might change his mind. It’s been like a ten-year run of doing this enormous amount of very high quality work. Maybe he’ll be like, “You know what, I’ve finished with this phase, I’m gonna do all pointillist comics from now on.” [Laughter.] I’m sure he could if he wanted to.

ABEL: That’s something I’ve done really explicitly, when I changed my style to work on La Perdida. That was a major change, and then I’m actually working in a very realistic style for Trish Trash. It’s very tightly rendered but super clean. It’s going to be in color so there’s going to be no hatching or anything. I’m trying to be influenced by Hergé and clean-line stuff. I think that it is really malleable and I think that there’s choices. It’s really important to be able to think about those things.

MAUTNER: It’s interesting, because all of the artists you’ve mentioned, including yourselves, started out with a more detailed style and moved towards a more simplistic and less cluttered style. "Clutter" is not the right word there.

ABEL: Well yeah, it’s "full." Fully full with stuff. [Laughter.] I’m trying to minimize my style and I’m not a minimal artist at all.

MADDEN: So Chris, you need to pull out all your old comics and a bottle of Wite-Out.

MAUTNER: Only if I Wite-Out the whole page will it improve. [Laughter]

MADDEN: Abstract comics are hot now!