Month: August 2017

Comics and Narration by Thierry Groensteen trans. by Ann Miller

I picked up this book having struggled with The System of Comics translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. While I loved the direct analysis of that book, much of it was difficult to understand. Part of that was just due to reading theory; it takes some time to get into someone else’s mode of thought and terminology. But part of it was due to the stilted sentence structures and odd choices of words. So I was surprised to find Comics and Narration so readable. Sure, there were complicated ideas and I had to slow down and even reread passages at times, but by and large the book was engaging. I even found myself charmed by the tone, something I would never say about the previous book. So this begs the question: did Groensteen’s writing get better or is Ann Miller a much better translater than Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen? My French is too elementary for me to know for sure, but comments Groensteen has made on-line (see comments here) point to the latter. Melissa Loucks and the writer at Critical Takes also think this.

That being said, this book is an extension of The System of Comics, so a working knowledge of that book is necessary to engage with this book. One drawback to that is that it makes this book feel like a series of appendices more than a solid entity at times. Still, Groensteen’s ruminations of narration and rhythm are insightful. What I always appreciate about Groensteen is that he grounds his theory in an analysis of actual texts and his ultimate goal is how his theory can be practically applied to actual texts.

Like Barbara Postema, Groensteen states that a single panel “can evoke a story” (23). Yet he sides more with Scott McCloud in further stating that a single panel cannot be a narration, since, by definition, a narration needs a beginning and an end. Still, he discusses comics’s relationship to time and that sequence creates a sense of time and that the gutters leave space for the reader to fill in. This may not sound like anything new, but Groensteen breaks things down even further into shownintervened, and signified. These categories indicate the level of engagement of the reader. The shown is what is exists in the panel or “that which the monstrator displays to us” (37). The intervened is what the reader assumes to have happened between panels (38). As Groensteen implies, the length of the intervened can create rhythm. He offers a page by Jason (on page 150) in which the intervened is mostly just the back and forth between two characters talking, while the last panel offers a longer intervened time. So the final panel introduces a new rhythm, and so a new scene. Lastly, signified, as I understand it, seems a bit like connotation. It is when what is shown is not literal, but figurative. The image alludes to an idea or feeling. We might call this a visual metaphor or symbol. The example Groensteen uses is on the cover of the book and on page 49. In it, Jimmy Corrigan turns into a child while talking to his mother. Neither is he literally a child, nor is his mother literally standing next to him. Yet the conversation evokes these feelings and memories for Jimmy. This idea that Jimmy is remembering a previous time with his mother and therefor feels childlike and helpless is signified by the images (39). Groensteen’s overall point with this is to give us a new way of ascertaining “artistic achievement” (41). Stories that simply show and in which the intervened is simple to deduce from the shown are more simplistic works. Works that engage the reader further and make us try to understand the signified are more complex works.

As I quoted above, in this book Groensteen employs the terms monstrator and monstration first coigned by André Gaudreault (as I understand it). I’m excited by this because I too have taken to using monstration. However, I avoid the term monstrator, because I want to get away from the linguistic obsession with who makes the utterance. For me, narration is what is told and monstration is what is shown. I don’t care who the narrator is (unless it’s important for the story). Groensteen, however, is concerned with enunciation and so the monstrator decides what to show and the monstration is the effect of that decision (86). Furthermore, Groensteen makes the monstrator a subset of the narrator. For him, the narrator is the “high[est] enunciating source” (94). The narrator then selects what is told and what is shown, in the roles of the reciter and the monstrator. So Groensteen’s theory is couched firmly in structuralism. While I personally don’t wish to use these terms, they do allow Groensteen to theorize about the various roles the two play, which he discusses on pages 90-95.

The other major theme in this book, which I briefly mentioned above, is rhythm. Groensteen mostly discusses panel layout, but also considers how words affect rhythm. While I liked this, I wished that he had gone further. Layout creates rhythm of course, but so does the relative visual density of the panels. So does the amount of time in the intervened. As I showed above, Groensteen hints at this possibility. Again, the fact the Jason chooses to end his page with a panel that implies a longer space of intervened time creates a change in rhythm to the end of the page. If Groensteen didn’t say this explicitly, he pointed the way. In other words, he has invited us to continue where he left off, which is one of the great gifts of well-written theory.

Overall, I’m glad this book exists. First, it proves to us English readers that Groensteen can be an accessible writer. It also gives us new modes of analysis and jumping off points for our own theorizing. Comics and Narration is both useful and inspiring.


(written February 1, 2016)

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo

When I was in the seventh grade, I read Farewell to Manzanar and was told that it was the only book about the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. Fifteen years later, I found out that this wasn’t true. There was in fact another book about the internment and one that was published long before Farewell to Manzanar (1946 versus 1973). Moreover, it was told from the point of view of a young adult, not a child, which meant it had many more details about life in the camps. More incredibly, it was a story told in words and pictures.

I’m not sure whether or not it’s the picture book aspect of Citizen 13660 that has made it less popular than Farewell to Manzanar, but I think it can be a strangely empty book for people who are unaccustomed to reading visual narratives (I definitely felt this upon a first reading). The text in the book is encyclopedic in style. There is no characterization, no dialogue, and little opinion. Details are given matter-of-factly. On the one hand, this makes the things depicted all the more monstrous, because they are so out in the open. But on the other hand, it can make the book seem a little flat.

That is, until you look at the images. Like a picture book, there is one image per page, set above the text. This separation is not popular in graphic novels today, but in Citizen 13660 the separation creates a tension between the text and the images. This is intentional, because the art serves to subvert the encyclopedic narrative. As Megan Kelso says in her review of the book, “new meaning arises from the discord.”

Citizen 13660 page 12

First of all, there is the nature of the figure drawing. Okubo was trained under Diego Rivera and her figures have a similar roundness and abstraction to them. Faces convey emotion, but are not heavily detailed, and everything is inked in a simple line black-and-white. One curious effect of this is that in some panels it is difficult to tell who is Japanese-American and who is not. On page 12 Okubo says that “people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust.” The accompanying image makes effective use of the intersecting lines of a bus window to highlight the figure of Okubo herself and underscore the tension. Yet when one looks at the other figures depicted in the bus, Okubo is not obviously more Japanese than any of them. This is due to the simplicity of her art of course, but it also adds a counterpoint to what is going on. She is a citizen like the rest of them. She isn’t any different. In fact, Okubo had been painting mosaics at a military base, Fort Ord, when talk of internment began (ironically). So while the text mentions a growing desire to make the Japanese-Americans into untrustworthy others, the image shows sameness. The reality the art depicts is not the one that the history book narrative allows space for.

The pictures are also the place where Okubo’s emotions become clear. On page 18 she tells of registering at one of the Civil Control Stations. The text simply states the rules regarding this and the fact that she did it. There is no point of view provided. Yet in the illustration above Okubo is giving a stern look to one of the soldiers and he is looking back at her with an expression of surprise. Likewise, on page 59 she talks about curfew at Tanforan and the roll call done by the house captain twice a day. Again, plain factual text. Yet in the picture Okubo seems to be sticking out her tongue at the house captain. On page 108 is perhaps my favorite scene. In the text, Okubo tells the reader that every room was inspected for “potentially dangerous tools” and the like. At the very end, she mentions that her room was almost not inspected due to a sign on her door. And that’s it for the text. The image, however, depicts the inspection of her room. The house captain is going through her drawers while a soldier stands guard. The soldier looks at Okubo with a harsh expression. Okubo looks back, her glance similarly stern. Yet she holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a piece of paper in another, and on her head is a floppy spiral cut out of paper, a whimsical counterpoint to the mood of the scene. Since Okubo is an artist, many of her tools could be construed as being “dangerous” by suspicious minds and yet the image shows the absurdity of such a claim. Not only does the image show a different reality than the text, but also the art within the image, the paper spiral, similarly resists the assumptions made by the other people in the scene. Art is the only sane response to such surreal inhumanity and the only possible recourse for resistance.

Citizen 13660 page 108

So it is the words in the book that provide the stark reality, just like it was the wording of Executive Order 9066 that made the internment a legal reality. Through words, people are able to convince themselves that stealing others of their civic rights is acceptable and even necessary. Words have the ability to create a new reality, but do so at the expense of human emotion. So it is left to visual art to subvert the inhumane effects of words. And that is exactly what Okubo does all throughout Citizen 13660. So the book is not simply an act of trying to remember the past, as Farewell to Manzanar is; it is a book about the necessity and humanizing power of art.

Megan Kelso wrote an insightful review of the book, but it seems to no longer be available on-line.


(written May 30, 2009)

How to Hold a Dip Pen

(Not like this.)

When I was learning to play trumpet as a kid, I was told to never let my cheeks puff out when I blew. But take a look at almost any picture of Dizzy Gillespie. What do you see? Huge, puffed-out cheeks. So watch out for being too precious with the “rules” that you hear. Yes, you should listen to the advice of those who came before you, but “rules” are just lessons that another artist learned to help them create. The goal of all these rules is to eliminate potential problems that might hinder you from doing the art you want to do. But if those very rules are getting in your way, then you have to break them. However, breaking rules won’t make you a great artist, just as obeying them won’t.

That being said, pen-and-ink can be an unforgiving medium at times. I remember plenty of moments of frustration over the years and most of those could have been avoided if I had known the correct way to do things. Most everything I learned was through trial-and-error, including how to hold my pen. But I’ve seen a few photos and videos recently that have shown me very different ways of doing this. So what is the correct way? (hint: the first paragraph is a spoiler)

In the classic pen and ink book, Rendering in Pen and Ink, Arthur Guptill says that you should “hold the pen naturally, much the same as for writing” (21). So basically, hold a dip pen the same way as you would hold any writing instrument. Yet he warns you to “keep your fingers far enough back from the point to prevent them from becoming daubed in ink, and above all, don’t cramp your fingers tightly onto the penholder.” George Carlson says basically the same thing:

This seems like sound advice to me, yet the manga artists showcased in How To Pen & Ink: The Manga Start-up Guide all hold their pens choked way up on the holder. Here’s Oh!great:

And look at Nightow Yasuhiro here. He’s choked up so far his finger is on the nib itself:

These are professional manga artists so obviously this way of holding a pen works for them. That being said, I would really not recommend holding a pen this way. I saw Jeff Smith talk at the TCAF a few years ago and he said that when he was done with Bone he had a slew of health problems, all of which stemmed from a rigid drawing posture. I want to be able to draw till I’m old, so I don’t want to develop cramped habits that may cause problems later. So take Guptill and Carlson’s advice and hold your pen in a relaxed, natural way.

For instance, I rest my pen on my ring finger with my index and middle fingers on top. Yet I’ve seen other artists rest the pen on their middle finger. I don’t think either is “right;” it’s just a matter of what feels comfortable to you.

The more important consideration is the nib’s orientation to the paper. In general, the pen should be angled at about 45 degrees. This will vary as you draw, but you should never hold the pen completely perpendicular to the page. Not only might the ink drip out, the tines of the nib are more likely to catch and send a spray of ink. Basically, if you rest your hand on the page, the angle from the height of your hand to the paper makes for a nice working position for the pen. I recommend having some kind of blotter or other piece of paper beneath your hand so that you don’t smudge your drawing or get your hand oils on the drawing paper.

Also, the pen needs to be in a position that you can draw with it. And I mean draw in the sense of pulling. The nib is made to be pulled down the page in the opposite direction of the tip. Never push. Not only will you get ink splatters, but you may also ruin your nib. Some nibs can be moved sideways, creating very thin lines. But the drawing motion unlocks the full potential of the nib, allowing lines to swell from hairlines to broad strokes. Catherine Slade shows this in her Encyclopedia of Illustration Techniques:

All kinds of how-to videos exist on YouTube and they vary widely in quality. In one video, the artist Dan Nelson holds his nib completely upside down. This seems to work for him and it does allow him to get very thin lines. Still, it goes against the very intent of a nib’s design. If a nib is upside down, you can’t use pressure to vary the line. Basically, it would be like drawing with a rapidograph, which means you are depriving yourself of the expressiveness in your chosen tool.

Overall, there is a lot of variation out there in how artists hold their pens. What we are all looking for is that sweet spot where things feel comfortable but where we are also accessing the full potential of our instrument. And in the process, not developing bad habits that keep us from creating or even harming us in the long run.

(written March 10, 2016)

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert

The story of Helen Keller is a famous one and one that has been told many times. So if an artist were tasked with telling the tale, there are many possible versions of the story to look to for inspiration or perhaps fall into the trap of imitating. Yet what Joseph Lambert has created is not simply a Classics Illustrated retelling Keller’s autobiography or a static version of The Miracle Worker, but a book that lives and breathes as a graphic novel, using the medium to its full advantage. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is a book that should be on everyone’s permanent “best-of” lists.

Lambert had the challenge of making an old story new again yet readable to an all-ages audience. Upon flipping through the book, the first thing one notices is how Lambert has chosen to depict Helen’s world. Forms only appear in rough outline, with color denoting the separation of self and other. Over the course of the book, sign language starts appearing in the darkness, gradually to be replaced by words. The visual device both accents Helen’s isolation– she is literally in blackness– and makes it clear how she comes to understand language. The images and words in Helen’s world get more complicated as her understanding grows.

Lambert uses the static medium shot in vogue among people like Jason and Chris Ware. Of course, it is also also a style used by the early newspaper strips, such as King’s Gasoline Alley. Here the technique serves to let the drama unfold naturally without any potentially bathetic use of close-ups or fancy framing. Still, at times I felt too separate from the action. For instance, I didn’t understand at first that Annie was spelling words out on Helen’s hand. Since the hands were so small I didn’t realize the significance at first. Yet in general, the restrained compositions of the book make the actions of the characters come to life by heightening the small changes in their faces and posture.

Yet this book has more going for it than its formal decisions. One thing I’ve always felt that comics tend to lack is depth of characterization. For all the talk about “literary” comics, I think the majority of comics don’t get to the complexity of characterization that literature does. Yet Lambert’s book is not guilty of this fault. Overall, this book is a close character study of Annie Sullivan. We come to understand why she is uniquely able to get through to Helen, seeing both depictions of her experiences and expressions of her temperament. And Lambert doesn’t put Annie on a pedestal or candy-coat things. Annie is hot-headed and quick to vindictiveness. And by the end, I began to feel that she was too possessive of Helen. Not only does she keep people away from Helen, but it becomes clear that Helen’s sense of reality is mediated by Annie. Helen’s knowledge that the warmth that she feels is actually the sunlight through the trees or the fact that a story is fact or fantasy is dependent solely on Annie Sullivan. And in the end, we see the possibility that this is too claustrophobic a reality. Yet again, what Annie does is just an amplified version of what all parents do. On top of that, who else and how else could Helen be reached? And so, I was left thinking that it couldn’t have been any other way.

Such musings point to the complexity of Lambert’s book. Lambert doesn’t shy away from these complexities and he notices (or creates) many subtle details. And, thankfully, he doesn’t judge. For instance, on page 52 we see Mrs. Keller’s day and how being a housewife in that era was a full-time job. After nine panels depicting her work, her husband and brother return home (from doing what?) and her brother asks with unthinking privilege, “Dinner ready?” We understand Lambert’s point if we choose to, but he doesn’t belabor it. Nothing more is said and Mrs. Keller goes off to make dinner as a woman of her time would. This scene is not simply a feminist political statement; it helps to underscore Annie Sullivan’s reality. If she cannot have the job teaching Helen then what autonomy she has will be gone. Again, no character says this, but we understand it due to Lambert’s staging.

Such incredible restraint and trust of the reader are the hallmarks of a cartoonist in complete control of his craft. That and the deep understanding– and at times frustration– we come to feel for Annie make this a truly remarkable book.

The main quibble I have is with the ending. I think it may have required a firmer authorial hand. Lambert depicts the events of the plagiarism trial against Helen and allows a certain amount of vagueness about what actually happened, at least in terms of how much Annie Sullivan may have coached Helen to cover up the truth. This works and it creates a sense of doubt in the reader about Annie’s methods and we can see it creates doubt for Helen about her own sense of reality and herself. Yet the important thing is the relationship between Helen and Annie. With the trial we see a whole new side of that relationship; a strain is put upon the trust that the relationship is founded on. In other words, what is Helen thinking? How does she feel about Annie now? And this is left unanswered. The book ends here. It’s as if a door is opened in a house and a new room is revealed, but we are quickly told that we cannot enter and must in fact go home. And so I feel that the main relationship in the book, the one between Annie and Helen, is left in limbo. And so the book ends more with uncertainty than resolution. On the other hand, maybe I’m accusing Lambert for lacking the very thing I lauded him for earlier: lack of drama.

Besides this minor reservation about the choice of ending, I find Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller to be an incredibly strong book. In fact, it’s a book I’m going to add to the short list of graphic novels I will suggest to people who don’t read comics. It is such a solid work with such unassailable strengths that it will appeal to almost any reader. This is a book more people should be talking about. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.


Other reviews:

Rob Clough The Comics Journal website


(written August 27, 2012)

Choosing a Nib Holder

There are many different kinds of nib holders out there, especially if you start to get into antique models. But which one you use mostly comes down to personal preference (the two on the right are the ones I use most often). Even so, there are a few things to keep in mind. (I am only considering straight pen holders here, by the way).

Size. Will the nib holder fit your nib? This is the most important thing, but it’s not too challenging. There are, roughly, three main nib sizes: the large, like the Brause 76, Zebra G, Leonardt 30, and Gillott 404; the medium, like the Brause 511, Hunt 100, and Easterbrook 356; and the small tubular nib, like the Brause 515 and Hunt 102. Most holders will fit the large and medium sizes or the small tubular sizes. Most the ones you come across fit the large and medium sized nibs, so the only size you have to make sure you get the right holder for is the small tubular nib.

Material. Personally, I hate holding plastic. It just doesn’t feel right in my hand and if it’s hot the holder gets slippery. So, I always look for wooden nib holders. I also have a metal nib holder for my small tubular nibs. It has a nice feel, though I have a rubber sleeve on mine since the rough metal at the end sometimes rubs against my finger in an uncomfortable way.

Shape. A lot of nib holders swell towards the nib end and I prefer this to a perfectly straight holder. In addition, some nib holders will have a bit of cork near the end, which makes holding them more comfortable.

Weight. This isn’t a big deal, but overly light nib holders just don’t feel as solid to draw with. This is the main drawback I found with the e+m antique style pen holder. Obviously, you can only check weight if you get to try out the holder in a store.

Mount. This is what I really want to discuss here. The question is: how does the nib attach to the holder? This is a matter of the proper size; you want to a mount that will fit your nib. But this is also a matter of feel. If the mount isn’t snug, then your nib will wiggle a bit and affect your drawing.

Most nib holders you will find use the kind of metal prong mount shown above. The e+m, General’s, and Koh-i-noor pen holders all use this kind of mount. Basically, four metal prongs hold the nib against the inside of a metal ring. This works okay at first, but I have found that the prongs start to weaken fairly quickly. You can see this on the right above. In this case, dried ink on the nib holder actually helps keep the nib in place. This isn’t an ideal mounting mechanism. The ones on the e+m pen holders haven’t worn out for me yet, but they are also new holders. So we’ll see.

The other mount that you tend to find these days involves concentric plastic rings. The nib slides between the rings to rest snuggly in the holder. This mount fits larger nibs really well. The Tachikawa holder (right) supposedly fits small tubular nibs also, but I find that it doesn’t do so very tightly and is too big for the Brause 515. It works best with larger nibs, like the Zebra G. The holder on the left is a really nice rosewood holder by Ken Altman. I use this one with my Leonardt 30 for lettering.

Some wooden nib holders will just have holes cut into them for the nib to slide into. If the nib is the correct size, then this makes for a very solid feel since the nib is directly against the holder without any metal or plastic acting as an intermediary. The holder on the right is a rosewood carrot shaped holder. The one on the left was an oblique holder which I took the oblique mount out of. The resulting hole fits a Brause 511 perfectly (this is what I draw with almost exclusively).

All the above holders are for large and medium sized nibs. For the small tubular nibs, you need a more specialized holder.

The one I have is metal. The nib slides in between the prongs and then you turn the collar to tighten the prongs. The result is that the nib is held very tightly.

So far, the nibs I’ve shown are the kinds of ones you could find in a brick-and-mortar store or on-line. But people have been writing and drawing with dip pens for a long time. So many kinds if nib holders have come and gone over the years, and sometimes they come up for sale at various antique stores on-line.

One style of mount that you don’t see anymore is the metal collar. Basically, it’s two curved pieces of metal and the nib slides between them. This kind of mount works best for medium nibs like the Hunt 100 and Brause 66ef.

This next kind of mount I’ve encountered only once.

The nib slides into the mount and you depress the lever. This pushes metal arms against the underside of the nib, locking it in place.

This is a really cool mechanism, though I find that the lever rubs a bit against my ring finger as I draw.

And last but not least, I wanted to mention something I heard about a long time ago. You can use the cap of a Pitt artist pen as a nib holder. It only works with larger nibs, though.

There is a really nice guide to nibs and pen holders at Jet Pens.

(written February 12, 2016)

Manga in Theory and Practice: the Craft of Creating Manga by Hirohiko Araki

Manga in Theory and Practice: the Craft of Creating Manga
by Hirohiko Araki

The creator of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has written a book which, he claims, reveals the secrets of creating manga. He calls these secrets “the golden way” and his book is a map pointing us along that way. Are you excited to peel back the curtain and see what it really takes to be a great mangaka? Me, too! Let’s take a look…

One hard-earned secret that Araki shares with us is that we should write good dialogue. And how should we go about learning how to do this? What are the guidelines? What are the things to watch out for? Araki says: “look at the dialogue on many manga’s front pages and think about why they make you want to read further” (25).  In other words, we figure it out for ourselves. Thank you, master!

Another step on “the golden way” is to make good characters. How does one do that? According to Araki, a budding mangaka must ask themselves “am I making good characters” (42)? So you make good characters by intending to make good characters. That’s a great trade secret that will surely make you a famous artist! He also tells us that when we have a hero and a villain that we should make them different. He says that he often bases his characters on “the duality of light and shadow” (56).  I don’t know about you, but I have never considered thinking about the fight of good versus evil as a metaphor of light versus dark. Such a useful secret!

And did you know that “characters and setting are indispensable” (43)? I’m sure a lot of you, like me, were intending to create an entire story with no characters and absolutely no setting. I’m glad Araki set us on the right path!

Then Araki tells us the secrets of storytelling. He boldly proclaims that “manga need stories” (84). Okay, but how do we make a story? Well, there are four parts: the introduction, the development, the twist, and the resolution. You know that story structure stuff you learned in your high school English class? Exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution? Remember? Basically, do that and you’re on the golden way. Thank you, sensei!

Et cetera, et cetera. You get the point.

Look, I don’t care what you think about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. A lot of people love that manga and it has been going for a long time. But this book is crap. Either it says nothing (to make good characters, make good characters!) or it tells you stuff you’ve heard a million times before. As a guide for creating comics this book is almost completely useless. It is just too vague and too lacking in depth. This book may be of interest to fans of Araki’s work because he talks a little bit about what he was thinking about when he was creating his various manga. But even that doesn’t tend to go much deeper than “I thought that this would be a cool idea.” And there really isn’t that much artwork in here, at least not enough to justify buying the book for that reason alone.

All that being said, I found a few things interesting. One, Araki has very diverse influences. At one point he talks about how much he loves a book-length interview between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock (13-14). In another, he praises the dialogue of Ernest Hemingway (107). And later he tells us that he got the idea for the crazy character poses in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure after seeing Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne in Rome (140). The point, which he does make, is that we should look for influences everywhere and that manga is an art form like any other. Like the rest of this book, these aren’t new insights, but I liked seeing them confirmed. The other thing I really liked was seeing two pages of Araki’s rough layouts (186-187). What struck me was how loose and unprecious they were. They were basically squiggly lines, dialogue, and sound effects divided up into barely delineated panels. Except for one panel, there wasn’t any figure drawing at all. Really, all he was doing with the roughs was working out how he was going to divide the story beats up across the two pages. It was about planning rhythm, not worrying about how things were going to look. To make an odd comparison, this is similar to Alison Bechdel’s approach to creating Fun Home. Seeing Araki’s roughs next to the carefully drawn finished pages (192-193) provides more of a lesson than anything else in the rest of the book.

I know I’m being pretty harsh, but I was excited to read this book. I always like to hear about how comics artists think about their craft, even if I disagree with their thinking. But this book was so bland that there really wasn’t much to agree or disagree with. It was like going to listen to the director’s commentary on a DVD, excitedly hoping to get insight into a film you loved, only to have the director say stuff like “I just like the color blue.” And then the intro was so overblown, claiming to reveal secrets and demonstrate a “golden” way that halfway through the whole thing I thought it had to be an elaborate joke. I mean, at one point he talks about “the golden ratio” of beauty. You know what that is? You draw a line in the middle of the head and that’s where the eyes go (127). That’s it. A line in the middle of the head. Not only is it bathetic to the point of absurdity, it’s basically just the same advice given in every drawing book ever written. Maybe Araki actually believes that creating manga can’t be taught and we all have to figure it out by ourselves. But if that’s true, why make us pay for this book? Just to be a jerk? No, I think Araki really believes in this book and believes he is providing a service. And looking at reviews of the book on-line, maybe he is. My question is: did the U.S. readers who loved this book never pay attention in English class?

Here is a brief list of books that are infinitely more useful than this one:

Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

Making Comics

Draw Out the Story

Pen & Ink: the Manga Start-up Guide

Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga.

Nibs: a comparison

When I got into regularly drawing with dip pens, nibs were easy to find at the local art store and I could get them for thirty cents a piece. So it wasn’t too hard to try out different kinds. These days, not all art stores carry nibs and they tend to be around one to three dollars each. They’re still pretty cheap for an art supply, but you have to actively seek them out, usually from on-line retailers (I’ve listed some at the bottom). Since trying out different models takes a bit more effort, it helps to narrow your search a bit. One way to do that is to find out what nibs your favorite pen-and-ink artists use. The other way is to look at guides like this one.

Finding a nib you like is a matter of taste. But there are certain qualities to look for in any nib (in each category a spectrum is possible):


Thin line – Thick line
What is the size of the line produced when standard pressure is applied to the nib?

Smooth – Scratchy
How does the nib feel on the page?

Stable – Flexible
How does the nib feel as you increase pressure on it?

Steady – Elastic
How quickly does the nib return to its original shape?

High modulation – Low modulation
How much variation can you get out of the line created?

The following is a brief overview of a few pointed pen nibs. This is by no means an exhaustive list; it’s just a few of the more common nibs I’ve used and enjoyed. This list moves roughly from thick line nibs to thin line ones (or right to left in the image above).


Brause 76
I hadn’t heard about Brause nibs when I started out. What I have discovered is that the Brause nibs are consistently the best made nibs I have ever tried. The 76 is also called the “Rose” due to the little rose embossed on the shaft. It’s a fairly large nib and so creates wider lines, but it is incredibly flexible. The 76 is the closest thing to inking with a brush of any nib I’ve tried. It’s a lot of fun.

Hunt 512
This is a stiff, not very flexible nib with a smooth feel. It has a “bowl tip”: meaning that the point is rounded slightly. This makes drawing curves easier. I used to use this nib for all my lettering, but have stopped because it seemed like the 512s were getting scratchier and more frequently defective. I feel that the Hunt nibs have really gone down in quality over the years.

Leonardt 30
This is the nib I use for lettering now. Leonardt nibs have recently made a comeback. The 30 is solid and stiff, which works well for consistent lettering. It’s a lot like the Hunt 512, but with a bit more modulation possibility and a smoother feel.

Zebra G
Comics artists inspired by manga are often turned on to the fabled “G” nib. In my limited experience, the Zebra G nib is better than the Nikko G nib. It’s not very flexible, but delivers very controlled lines. For a larger nib, the line it creates is actually fairly fine. The nib feels strong and it lasts a long time. Personally, I find the nib a bit too scratchy and inflexible for my tastes. The Tachikawa G is slightly more flexible (maybe I’ll post a comparison at a later date).

Gillott 303
This is a reliable nib with a bit of flexibility. While there are smaller Gillott nibs, I’ve found that the 303 actually can produce a thinner line than many of them. So this is a good nib to start with if you want to try a nib from Gillott. Overall though, I find the 303 a bit too scratchy for my taste, and this is true of all the Gillott nibs I’ve used.

Esterbrook 356
I got this nib on eBay. Esterbrook was a standard line of nibs once upon a time. From what I’ve tried, all their nibs are solidly built. The 356 is a bit stiff and doesn’t offer a lot of line variation.

Brause 66ef
I used this nib when I drew Carnivale. It produces a fairly fine line, but has a very springy feel. Even so, it is easy to create a stable line with the 66ef. When you vary the pressure on the nib, the line fluctuates evenly. It doesn’t suddenly swell or drop off. I think this is due to the quality of the metal used to make the nib. While the point of the nib is fine, it is also slightly rounded, like the Hunt 512. That means that you can almost draw a circle with one stroke, versus composing a circle from two strokes as you have to do with most nibs. It also has a good ink capacity, so you can create long, flowing lines. Overall, it’s a nice nib and would be a good nib to start with if you wanted a fine line.

Brause 511
This is my favorite nib and the one I draw with most often now. When I first used this nib I liked how smooth it was, but I thought it was a bit too unyielding. Yet this was due to the fact that I was coming off using the Hunt 100, which is the most elastic nib out there. The Brause 511 is not very elastic, but capable of a nice bit of variation if you apply the pressure. Don’t be shy with it; bear down and see what it can do. Since it is more stable and steady, when you apply pressure, the nib smoothly comes back to a thinner line. You might be able to see the contrast with the Hunt 100. With the 100, the line drops back quickly to a thin line, making for a little cliff after the large swell. The 511 modulates at a more consistent rate. So this nib offers a lot of variability while not sacrificing control. And it feels like a dream on the page. This is why I love this nib so much.

Hunt 100
At one time, the Hunt 100 was my main drawing nib. What I love about it is it’s incredible springiness. The nib is very elastic and flexible. Because of this, it takes a steady hand to control it, but it is capable of making some very expressive marks. Yet the flexibility of the nib also means that it’s not very good for hatching, at least if you want a consistent size to your hatch marks. There are two main reasons that I no longer use this nib. One, it wears out fast. The elasticity of the nib is due to the lightness its metal and this light metal wears out quickly. Second, this nib has made me want to scream one too many times. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to draw but having no ink flow from your pen. I’ve had this problem more often with the Hunt 100 than with any other nib I’ve ever tried. When I was more inexperienced, I thought the problem was me (and sometimes it was). But I’ve since realized that it’s mostly the nib. So, this is an expressive nib, but not one that you want to rely on. Honestly, this nib has caused me more frustration than any other.

Hunt 102
This is a small tubular nib, which, unsurprisingly, creates a very fine line. So if you want small marks, this is a nib to try. I’ve found though that at a certain point, lines can get so small that they don’t reproduce well. Since I create comics, this is a concern for me. So I find the 102 too small. The Brause 515 is a similar nib, though not quite as thin, yet with a much smoother feel.


On-line nib retailers:
Pen-and-Ink Arts

Other on-line nib guides:

(written December 23, 2016)

Panther by Brecht Evens

A lot of children’s books are pretty creepy when you think about them. Many of them involve child abandonment or characters who seem whimsical on the surface, but reveal themselves to be agents of chaos. Think of The Cat in the Hat. He’s funny, but also incredibly destructive and unsafe. The new graphic novel by Brecht Evens takes the unsettling nature of many children’s books and turns that up a notch. But interestingly, he never tips it over into pure horror. Everything remains unnervingly ambiguous. It’s a horror story told as a children’s book.

Panther is about Christine who lives alone with her father. Her sickly cat, Lucy, has just been put to sleep. Into the midst of this childhood sorrow, held by a larger sorrow connected to her missing mother, steps the spotted form of Panther. Panther charms Christine and seems to be the answer to her loneliness. But from the outset, his predator’s eyes and ever-changing visage let us know that things are far from okay. Then Christine’s stuffed animal Bonzo goes missing, obviously connected to the appearance of Panther. Bonzo returns, but is it really Bonzo? And why doesn’t he corroborate Panther’s story? Events culminate in Christine’s birthday party, where Panther invites a few more of his friends into Christine’s world. Like the new Bonzo, none of them seem to know what is appropriate to say and do in front of a young girl.

The art here is really gorgeous. The color choices harken to the primaries of children’s books, but they are often paired with murky blacks. The effect is art that is both vibrant and unsettlingly dark. The focus in Panther is much tighter than in Evens’s previous books, so there is not as much breadth of setting and character. Yet in some ways, the character of Panther makes up for that by his constantly changing form. He is usually recognizably a cat, but the style shifts. Many times, the style echoes that of some children’s book artist, but it also changes to match the mood of the dialogue. The changes are beautiful, but also unnerving. They make you feel early on that Panther is not a creature to be trusted. There is something dishonest about his very appearance. Then there’s Panther’s dialogue. The sickly green cursive shows both his desire to sound refined and the rotten, ingratiating nature of his speech. He is desperate to charm Christine. Whenever he says something that she doesn’t like or that disturbs her, he changes his story immediately. And yet, we get the idea that he truly cares for Christine in his own way. The question is: what is his intention? But this begs another, deeper question. From whence does Panther come? Is he from inside Christine herself, or her version of a real person in her life, or is he a denizen of some fantastical world?

Panther shares a bit in common with Evens’s earlier short story “Bad Friends” in Night Animals. That story also involves a young woman, though older and just entering puberty. It also involves a growing cast of fanciful characters who become increasingly bestial and lecherous. Yet Panther doesn’t follow a clear trajectory. While things definitely get more and more out of hand, the character of Panther seems to want to try to keep control of events and protect Christine even though he is the one introducing the chaos into her life. Also, “Bad Friends” is more obvious about what happens to the main character. While Panther does show things, it still remains ambiguous.

This ambiguity means that Panther is less satisfying in terms of plot. The story opens up more possibilities than it answers. On the one hand, this lets the reader figure things out. Again, is Panther Christine’s creation or the mask of an abuser? On the other hand, this ambiguity means there’s less to hold onto. Yet the beauty of the art makes me want to pick up the book again and again and try to unlock its secrets. If they can be unlocked. What Evens has managed to do is create a tone that hovers between the creative joy of childhood imagination and the unfathomable terror of barely contained amorality. The fact that most the book walks that line without falling too heavily into either camp makes for a captivating, if completely unsettling, reading experience.

(written May 20, 2016)